12 Things You Never Knew About Memorial Day
Put the start-of-summer celebrations on hold and remember the meaning of the day.
It had a name change
When the first versions of Memorial Day were celebrated after the Civil War, the event went by the name Decoration Day, when flowers were laid on graves.
It was initially designed just for the Civil War
For more than 100 years, Memorial Day was reserved for honoring the lives of Civil War soldiers. The holiday didn’t expand to casualties of all American wars until after World War I. In 1971, it was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress. Find out why some states initially refused to celebrate Memorial Day.
Its birthplace is a hot debate
About two dozen towns across the United States claim they were the first to celebrate Memorial (or Decoration) Day. The U.S. government deems Waterloo, New York, the official “birthplace” title, though there were informal celebrations before the village’s May 5, 1866, event.
Freed slaves celebrated Memorial Day
On May 1, 1865—less than two weeks before the end of the Civil War—newly freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, held a ceremony reburying fallen Union soldiers with a proper burial. Even though it came before the Waterloo event (and many other decoration days), experts don’t consider it the first Memorial Day because it didn’t directly lead to the federal holiday. Even if you’re a history buff, you probably don’t know these 15 facts about America your history teacher never told you.
The date was chosen for its weather
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.
The first Memorial Day was just as big as today’s
In 1868, about 5,000 people decorated graves at Arlington National Cemetery’s first Memorial Day ceremony. About the same number of people still gather there annually. If you’re planning a trip, book one of these last-minute Memorial Day getaways.
It wasn’t always on the last Monday of May
Until 1971, when Memorial Day became an official federal holiday, the annual commemoration stayed on May 30, no matter what day of the week. Once the Uniform Monday Holiday Act passed, it lined its official date up to the day of the week: the final Monday in May.
The flag shouldn’t stay at half-staff all day
Federal guidelines say the flag should be displayed at half-staff only until noon, then go up to full-staff until sundown. Here are easy ways to remember the differences between Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
“Taps” started as a goodnight song
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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.
A poem inspired the poppy tradition
During World War I, Canadian Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae wrote the poem, “In Flanders Field.” 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. Check out these other 13 little-known facts about Memorial Day.
Bikers hold a demonstration
On Memorial Day in 1988, about 2,500 motorcycles rode through Washington, DC, calling the government to account for prisoners of war and those missing in action. By 2017, the annual Rolling Thunder First Amendment Demonstration Run, which brings awareness to forgotten Vietnam War veterans, had grown to about 900,000 riders.
Some states have their own Confederate memorial days
Southern states including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina plan their own Confederate Memorial Day (or in the case of Texas, Confederate Heroes Day) on various dates, depending on the state. Want to pitch in this Memorial Day? Try these small but powerful ways to support veterans.