Memorial Day: When Is It and Why We Celebrate It

It's not just the unofficial beginning of summer.

Whether you’re observing Memorial Day by visiting the graves of fallen soldiers, having a barbecue at the beach, or social distancing at home with a small group of family and friends and watching Memorial Day movies, most of us actually don’t know very much about the history of Memorial Day is truly about or where the holiday originated. What is Memorial Day really about? Keep reading to learn more.

When is Memorial Day?

Memorial Day was witnessed on May 30 from 1868 until 1970 but is now observed annually on the last Monday in May. What day is Memorial Day this year? In 2021, Memorial Day occurs on Monday, May 31.

Memorial Day meaning

So why do we celebrate Memorial Day? Memorial Day is considered a federal holiday in the United States in which we honor and mourn members of the military who have passed while serving in the United States Armed Forces. This is not to be confused with Veterans Day.

Memorial Day vs Veterans Day

Memorial Day honors military personnel who died in the service of their country. More specifically, it honors those who died in battle or as a result of wounds they sustained during battle. Veterans Day, observed on November 11 every year, honors everyone who has served in the army regardless of whether they served during wartime or not. Some people also wonder how Patriot Day falls into this mix of holidays. Patriot Day is observed on September 11 to commemorate the civilians that died during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

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Memorial Day facts and where the holiday came from

So, where did Memorial Day come from? Originally known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day began with an idea from General John Logan, as a way to honor the fallen soldiers of the Civil War. The first celebration on May 30, 1868, was held at Arlington National Cemetery with a crowd of 5,000 people decorating the graves of over 20,000 military personnel with flowers. Various Washington officials, including General Ulysses S. Grant, presided over the ceremonies. After speeches, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home, among others, made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers, and singing hymns. Many also came prepared with a picnic lunch. The observance has since been expanded to remember the deceased soldiers of any and all wars.

It wasn’t until after World War I that Memorial Day was expanded to honor all veterans who died in any American war. In 1971, Decoration Day became officially known as Memorial Day and Congress passed an act declaring it a national holiday. That same year, Memorial Day was moved from May 30 to the last Monday in May by President Lyndon B. Johnson. “This will…enable families who live some distance apart to spend more time together,” President Johnson noted in his official statement regarding what is now known as the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.

New York was the first state to declare Memorial Day an official holiday followed by other northern states, but the southern states had their own designated day to honor fallen Confederate soldiers. The observances remained separate until the completion of World War I when Memorial Day was changed to honoring the fallen Americans who fought in any war. In 1971, the date of the holiday was officially changed to the last Monday in May per the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This act also moved other holidays such as President’s Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day to consistently be on Mondays. Some southern states continue to honor the Confederate dead: January 19 in Texas; April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Georgia; May 10 in North and South Carolina; and June 3 in Louisiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

Most experts believe Major General John A. Logan planned the first Decoration Day for May 30, 1868, because Northern and Southern states would have flowers in bloom by then, though others believe the date was ideal because it didn’t coincide with the anniversary of any battles.

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Memorial Day traditions

There are a number of Memorial Day activities that families enjoy participating in every year, but there are also a few meaningful Memorial Day traditions that you can honor.

Memorial Day poppies: People wear poppies to honor America’s war dead in a Memorial Day tradition that dates back to the poem “In Flanders Fields,” written in 1915 by John McCrae. Inspired by the poem’s image of red poppies scattered through cross-shaped grave markers, American Moina Michael and France’s Anna E. Guerin started selling artificial poppies as a fundraiser for children affected by the war. Now, many Americans pin a poppy on their shirt as a sign of respect.

National Moment of Remembrance: To ensure the sacrifices of America’s fallen heroes are never forgotten, President Bill Clinton signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act” in December of 2000. The law encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation.

Hang your flag at half staff: Federal guidelines say the flag should be displayed at half-staff only until noon, then go up to full-staff until sundown.

Playing “Taps:” During the Civil War, a U.S. general thought the bugle call signaling bedtime could use a more melodious tune, so he wrote the notes for “Taps” in 1862. Another officer later used the bugle song for a funeral, fearing the traditional firing of rifles might sound like an attack. Now, “Taps” is a traditional part of Memorial Day celebrations.

Visit a local veterans cemetery: Some of the graves in a veteran cemetery are well maintained and decorated by families. Bring flowers and lay them by a grave that doesn’t have any.

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