Decoration Day

If you’re not from the Appalachian region, you may not know what Decoration Day means. On the outside, it’s simply when family members decorate the graves of their family members. It is usually done in the springtime when the flowers are blooming.

I used to think it was not a big deal…because the people that are actually in the graves don’t care if their headstone is decorated or not. I’d like to think my family members are in heaven with Jesus—not caring about their earthly grave at all.

But Decoration Day is not for the dead…it’s for the living.

It’s for the family members, that although they lost an elderly parent, they still honor them by putting a pretty bouquet of favorite flowers on their graves. They know that their parents don’t really care anymore…but while they were alive, it was tradition. Years ago, they always made sure to make the graveyard look like something beautiful, to make sure that a grim graveyard looked like a blooming garden instead. It was important to them.

Our ancestors are sleeping in the ground. Their life is through here on the earth. But there are vases of reminders of life around their names on a headstone.

We are reminded what a beautiful life they led. Just like a lovely peony or rose placed around their stone, we can see a glimpse of the legacy they left behind.

It’s uniquely Appalachian to have Decoration Day. To remember those great-grandparents we maybe had never met, but they are a part of us anyway. I asked my Mamaw Janice, who is from Pangburn, Arkansas, if Decoration Day was a big deal when she was growing up. It wasn’t. She moved here a few years after she married my papaw, and only then did she see the importance of participating in Decoration. She and my papaw still puts flowers out on his families’ graves.

What about the graves that don’t have family around anymore? Don’t worry, the good folks that decorate will always be sure to put some flowers on every headstone.

Historically, Decoration Day began sometime after the Civil War. The graves of the soldiers were honored by putting fresh or paper flowers on them.

According to Randolph Shields, in The Cades Cove Story, the people of the Cove made Decoration Day one of the biggest social events of the year. They would prepare paper flowers during the winter and save them until springtime to decorate the graves. They would also use fresh flowers from their gardens.

I had an image in my mind of what paper flowers were…and I just pictured maybe some simple rolled up paper to look like a rose or something. But boy was I wrong!

We spent Mother’s Day afternoon chatting with Great-Grandma Lois and Mamaw Ruthie (my husband’s family) and I asked them about Decoration Day.

Lois grew up in the Cove. She remembers the Decoration events very well. She and her family would spend the winter months making paper flowers and saving them in boxes until Decoration. They bought crepe paper from the store.

Lois and Ruth showed me a few examples of flowers they had made. They showed me the most beautiful, real looking paper flowers I’d ever seen! They weren’t anything like I had imagined. They would definitely rival any craft store “fake” flowers, as I call them.

I couldn’t get over how beautiful they were. So, naturally, I asked them to teach me to make them. (That will certainly happen soon!)

The Cove people would spend the day decorating their family plots, then have a big meal together. They would then attend Sunday church services and eat some more!

This was a highly anticipated yearly tradition. One unique to this part of the country.

If you’ve made it this far in my blog post, I’m going to invite you to attend this year’s Decoration Day in Cades Cove. June 1st will be the Saturday that the graves will be decorated. On Sunday, June 2nd, services will be held in Cades Cove in honor of Decoration Days of the past. Join us in this exclusively mountain tradition. Church service will be at the Primitive Baptist Church at 2 pm.

So you see, Decoration Day serves a greater purpose. Through decorating the graves of our relatives, we are honoring our loved ones and strengthening our unique community, too.

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