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Holidays, Observed and Otherwise

May 25, 2012 10:00 AM | 0 comments

I've recently had the great pleasure of preparing for cataloging our Brooklyn Daily Eagle photographs documenting local celebrations and holidays.  With Memorial Day just around the corner, I'd like to share some images of Memorial Days past in Brooklyn. 

Children barely contain their excitement as the 1941 Memorial Day Parade marches down Eastern Parkway.

The holiday traces back to the years after the close of the Civil War.  An Eagle article from May 20, 1870 describes the meeting of a group of citizens who were then considering observing Decoration Day, a holiday created by Major General John A. Logan, head of the Union veterans' group the Grand Army of the Republic, in 1868.  Decoration Day was celebrated by decorating the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers at the end of May, when flowers were blooming.  While the holiday may seem uncontroversial now, it caused a stir in those early years after the war -- being that it was created by the Grand Army of the Republic it was construed by many as salt in the still-open wound and a cause of further divisiveness between the northern and southern regions of the newly reunited United States. 


Ronald Lent, 9, shakes the hand of Thomas Barker, 93, a Civil War Veteran, in the 1931 Memorial Day Parade.

An Eagle editorial from 1871 argued against the nationalization of the widely observed holiday for this very reason, citing instances in Arlington, Virginia where those trying to decorate Confederate graves were "repelled by bayonets and greeted with contumely and outrage."  The tension was alleviated somewhat as the Civil War receded in public memory, and in 1917, following the devastating World War, the holiday was expanded to honor all American veterans of war. 

Above and below, Boy Scouts place flags by the headstones of American soldiers at Cypress Hills Cemetery, in 1953.

While many do still honor the holiday's history as a day to remember our fallen soldiers, it is perhaps more broadly known as the kick-off to summer, a day to be spent grilling out in the park or hitting the department store for big discounts.  The Memorial Day Parade that once marched down Eastern Parkway to the Soldiers and Sailor's Memorial at Grand Army Plaza is still celebrated annually, although it has been removed to Bay Ridge

The 1952 parade passes through Grand Army Plaza.

If our fervor for big brassy Memorial Day parades has diminished over the years, it has completely evaporated for other, less fortunate Brooklyn holidays of the 19th and 20th century which are now all but forgotten.  One such is the ambiguously named Anniversary Day, which was celebrated on the first or second Thursday of June and has since morphed into Brooklyn-Queens Day.  Although the day is now known merely as a day that children throughout the New York City school system inexplicably have a day off from classes, the holiday originated as a day to celebrate the founding of the Protestant organization the Brooklyn Sunday School Union in Brooklyn in 1816 at the Sands Street Church. 

In that era, leaders of Brooklyn's church community were appalled by the debauched attitudes of the borough's children, who were described by the historian Henry Stiles as openly engaging in "card playing, profanity, and other vices" on Sunday afternoons. Operating then much like a mission, the Sunday School Union hoped to show these still-salvageable youth the error of their ways.  By teaching them to read, they were also, and not at all incidentally, teaching them to read the Bible, which served the larger effort of gathering new believers to the faith.

An 1885 print from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper depicting an infant class on parade.

The Anniversary Day Parade was born 13 years after the founding of the Sunday schools, when the schools' 400 pupils marched around Brooklyn Heights.  It grew quickly from that humble beginning -- the 1890 parade saw 13,000 participating children and by the 20th century more than 100,000 children from all over the borough paraded annually through Prospect Park to mark the occasion on the first Thursday of June. 

But the holiday was of course also contentious, being that it effectively created a school holiday to celebrate a specific religious group.  Adding to the controversy was the consolidation of New York City in 1898 -- after that point, theoretically, at least, a school holiday in one borough had to be a school holiday in all boroughs, or not be observed at all.  A helpful timeline from Gothamist, with articles culled from our Brooklyn Daily Eagle website, traces the debacle over Anniversary Day, which marched on through the years despite wrangling between the Board of Education and the Brooklyn Sunday School Union.  Queens schools joined in the holiday in 1959 by an act of state legislature, and the day was rechristened Brooklyn-Queens Day.  However, the joy of an extra day off from school for no discernable reason wasn't extended to all boroughs until 2005.  Some churches still mark the day with parades, although the practice is not nearly as widespread as it was in its heyday.

Those too small to walk had to be pushed...

... or carried.

In addition to thousands of adorable children in 18th-century get-ups, the parade hosted many distinguished guests throughout the years, including the evangelist Billy Graham, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, President Howard Taft, and then-General Dwight D. Eisenhower, pictured right, in 1948.   

Our ephemera files also contain programs and sheet music for the celebration, along with an informational pamphlet explaining the purpose of Anniversay Day titled, fittingly, "Why We March."  This handy guide lists quotes from distinguished personages past and present, including Henry Ward Beecher, Mrs. Herbert Hoover, Governor Herbert Lehman, and Brooklyn's own poet laureate who said, "The sight of these pleasant girls and boys, marching athwart the city in every direction, was a sight to make a man's heart grow gentler and more sympathetic.  Blessings on Sunday Schools, and on all other schools, too!"  

That's certainly high praise, but I can think of at least one person who was not so thrilled with the Anniversary Day festivities:

 Enjoy your upcoming Memorial Day weekend!