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15 Things You Never Knew About Memorial Day

Let's remember the meaning and history of the federal holiday.

Laurel wreaths eating at the foot of a monument to commemorate the fallen of warSheridan Nilsson/Getty Images

The last Monday in May

Memorial Day celebrations will be a little different this year. Whether you typically spend the day at the gravesides of fallen soldiers or cracking open a beer on the beach, the holiday will be spent at home this year, with those you live with or even alone. Maybe this year can serve as a reminder as to why we even have a day off at the end of May in the first place. We can set up chairs on our front porch or back deck, enjoy the sun with our favorite barbecue foods, and remember those who fought for our freedom. Read on to learn some fast facts about Memorial Day to impress all your friends and check out these heartwarming stories of veterans lending a hand after wartime as another reminder of why it’s important to honor them.

Flowers rest on headstone in cemeteryjefftakespics2/Shutterstock

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.

NEW YORK CITY - 25 MAY 2015: Mayor Bill de Blasio & Gen John Kelly presided over Memorial Day observances on Pier 86 by the USS Intrepid. Unfurling enormous US flaga katz/Shutterstock

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.

Waterloo , New York in winterdebra millet/Shutterstock

Its birthplace causes 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 gives Waterloo, New York, the official “birthplace” title, though there were informal celebrations before the village’s May 5, 1866, event.

Old dirty shovel on the dry groundFlas100/Shutterstock

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 50 facts about America your history teacher never told you.

Baikutsugi.White flowers blooming in spring.Tamotsu Ito/Shutterstock

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. See if you know the answers to these tricky U.S. war history questions.

Selective focus view of marble grave markers with flags at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial DayDan Thornberg/Shutterstock

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. Here are 17 things you never knew about Arlington National Cemetery.

Blurred calendar page in over white tone.toeytoey/Shutterstock

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.

American flagLeonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock

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.

Brass bugle on a American flag.W. Scott McGill/Shutterstock

“Taps” started as a goodnight song

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.

Wildflowers poppiesMike Mareen/Shutterstock

A poem inspired the poppy tradition

During World War I, Canadian Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields.” 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 14 little-known facts about Memorial Day.

Riders Pass Through the Streets of As Spectators Look on During the Rolling Thunder Xxviii First Amendment Demonstration Run in Washington Dc Usa 24 May 2015 the Annual Gathering First Started in 1988 the Riders who Come From Around the United States and Other Countries Rally at the Pentagon Parking and Then Ride Through the Spectator Lined Streets of Washington D C United States WashingtonPete Marovich/Shutterstock

Bikers hold a demonstration

On Memorial Day in 1988, about 2,500 motorcycles rode through Washington, D.C., 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.

Confederate flags are planted next to the graves of Confederate soldiers in Oakland cemetery, in Atlanta. Georgia observes Confederate Memorial Day Monday marking the anniversary of the end of the Civil War. While April 26th is officially recognized as Confederate Memorial Day, state offices are closed Monday in observance of the holidayDavid Goldman/Shutterstock

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.

3 o'clockpepifoto/Getty Images

It is required by law to observe a National Moment of Remembrance

Congress passed a law in December of 2000 that requires Americans to pause at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day to honor the fallen soldiers. For most people, this law isn’t common knowledge since typically people are indulging in hot dogs and beer on the beach at this time, but maybe this year, since the celebrations will be altered, we can take a moment to respect those who fought for us. Here are some more little-known laws you’re probably breaking all the time.

Spatula with Cheeseburger on grilljjwithers/Getty Images

The BBQ tradition isn’t just a modern one

The tradition of celebrating Memorial Day with a barbecue actually began with having a picnic lunch at the burial sites of fallen loved ones. The day has always been honored with food. Check out the ways these strangers honored veterans.

Soldier salutingTetra Images/Getty Images

There are a lot of veterans

Forty-five million veterans have served our country during wartime. As of last year, there were a projected 15 million living wartime veterans in the United States. While the holiday is typically an excuse for a day on the beach instead of in the office, there are so many people still walking among us today that we should salute. Want to pitch in this Memorial Day? Try these small but powerful ways to support veterans.

Marissa Laliberte
Marissa Laliberte-Simonian is a London-based associate editor with the global promotions team at WebMD’s and was previously a staff writer for Reader's Digest. Her work has also appeared in Business Insider, Parents magazine, CreakyJoints, and the Baltimore Sun. You can find her on Instagram @marissasimonian.