“I believe our flag is more than just cloth and ink. It is a universally recognized symbol that stands for liberty, and freedom. It is the history of our nation, and it’s marked by the blood of those who died defending it.” – John Thune
Possibly thought of more as the unofficial start of summer, Memorial Day is a time of remembrance honoring those who gave their lives in service to this country.
While Memorial Day brings barbecues, sales, and graduation parties, there are also parades, cemetery visits, and ceremonies for those who mark the day more traditionally.
Memorial Day is a federal holiday mourning the loss of military personnel who died while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.
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.
The history of Memorial Day
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. Most experts believe General Logan planned the first Decoration Day for that day 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.
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. 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.
Memorial Day traditions
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 on a grave that doesn’t have any.