Decoration Day

October 18, 2013



Decoration — Not Just For Cakes

Decoration isn’t always something you put on a cake. In the South, there remain pockets of small communities which celebrate, “Decoration Day,” that we shorten to just “Decoration.” I grew up thinking everyone went to Decoration, and was amazed to discover that it’s observed in only a few Southern communities.
My Mother’s family in North Alabama observes Decoration, but my Father’s family in North Florida had never heard of it. Some friends in South Carolina go to Decoration, but no one I know in Georgia has any idea what it is about.
My Father was a little stunned when he realized that once a year he would be required to put on his best suit and go stand around in the cemetery with his in-laws, both living and the dearly departed. That’s basically what it is; standing around, admiring the graves and remembering those gone on before us. (To heaven, not the Golden Corral.)
Decoration isn’t the same as Memorial Day, that’s for our armed forces. Some people say that Memorial Day actually grew out of Confederate Memorial Day, which is believed to have originated with regular old-fashioned Decoration Day. This is why Decoration celebrations are so often found in older, more historic communities where little has changed over the years.
These are my Aunts decorating the graves on Saturday, preparing for Sunday’s event.
In the few areas that still celebrate Decoration, people go all out to do it right. You will see large signs on businesses that announce, “Get your Decoration chicken bucket here!” or “Decoration Sale — turnips half price.” This year, my Mother’s hometown of Hartselle even had the giant Wal-Mart get in on the act by stocking a huge selection of Decoration grave flowers, as if the local florists haven’t been holding their own all these years.
What keeps Decoration even more underground (oh, now there’s the pun of the century) is the fact that each community observes Decoration on a different day of the year. Hartselle celebrates the occasion on Mother’s Day.
Several carloads of my cousins, aunts and uncles, arrive at the cemetery on Saturday, actually two different cemeteries for us, and with whisk brooms, hand shovels and clippers, clean the graves of my Grandparents, Great Grandparents, and even the Great-Great Grandparents. After every grave with a relative resting below is neat and tidy, we place beautiful flower arrangements on the headstones.
On Sunday morning, we dress up in our best. I always recycle my Easter dress from a few weeks before, and then we take ourselves out to the cemetery.  There, we meander throughout the hillside graves, admiring the mounds of beautiful flowers and chatting with the other families who have also spent the previous day decorating their loved one’s resting place. It’s a given that we will stop to admire the ancient Indian burial sites where stones have been neatly stacked on top for ages. No one dares touch them out of reverence and a healthy dose of fear.
There’s something about standing with family in a plot that bears your name literally carved in stone, at a time when you aren’t consumed with grief for an actual funeral, which is rather peaceful and sweet. You tend to reflect kindly on those buried there, and think about how they would love seeing everyone together and what they would be saying to us now.
One year, when my boys were small, dressed in their matching little seersucker suits, skipping round and round the stones that edged my Grandparent’s graves, I started to tell them to stop, but then thought my Granddaddy would have said, “Let them play.” So I did.
Photo from Journey Proud.


We used to end the day with a covered dish luncheon on tables spread beneath the large oak trees, but now it’s been relocated to a home with the promise of air- conditioning, dry roof, and comfortable chairs for the older folks.
Traditions in the South are one unique feature that keep us tied to our place.  Decoration is a tradition that keeps us . . . (oh, I can’t say it) “grounded.” Just like Scarlett had a longing to return to Tara, we too understand that pull of home, even if no one else is there.
Many of us have moved away from the places where generations of our ancestors called home. But still, we return and fulfill our duty. We bring deviled eggs and gallon jugs of tea to the luncheon, and sit and listen to the older relatives talk about recent ailments. We look at photos of new babies, and we all give hugs and plan to return the next year.
To be the one decorating, hopefully not decorated.

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