Why We Celebrate Memorial Day

Memorial Day

Memorial Day is a federal holiday dedicated to honoring and remembering the brave men and women who have died while serving in the US military. 

Originally known as Decoration Day, it dates back to the end of the Civil War when the holiday was established to honor the fallen Union and Confederate soldiers. 

Throughout its history, Memorial Day developed into an inspiring nationwide tradition and has acquired new meanings and symbols. Each town and even each family, whether connected to the military or not, have their own traditions associated with the holiday.

Memorial Day is celebrated on the last Monday of May, and kicks off the beginning of the summer season. In 2024, Memorial Day is on Monday, May 27. In this Blog, we’ll cover the holiday’s origins, and how it turned into one of the most meaningful celebrations not only for the US Veterans and their families but also for the entire nation.

Origins of Decoration Day 

Decoration Day was declared a holiday back in 1868 to honor fallen soldiers in the Civil Way. 

The actual tradition of putting flowers on soldiers’ graves was not established by any federal act or law. It was people’s natural desire to honor the memory of their loved ones. It became a widespread custom during the Civil War, which was and remains the deadliest war in American history.

Historians claim that the Civil War took the lives of over 600,000 American people from both sides, more than World War I and World War II combined. With so much death, it is only natural that specific burial and honoring traditions were established.

It’s difficult to track the actual origin of Decoration Day. But here are a few precedents that are believed to have started the tradition:

  • October 1864. Boalsburg, PA
    Three women from Boalsburg, PA, came to the local cemetery to decorate the graves of their loved ones who fought and died in the Civil War. Next year, they were joined by more widows, and eventually, it became a local tradition.
  • May 1865. Charleston, SC
    On May 1, 1865, thousands of newly freed Black people gathered in Charleston, S.C. Attendees held a parade and put flowers on the graves of Union soldiers who had helped liberate them. It was probably the first documented event that did not only involve the relatives of fallen soldiers.
  • April 1866. Columbus, MS
    In 1866, a group of Columbus women wanted to arrange a ceremony in the local Oddfellows Cemetery to honor the dead Confederate soldiers. They decided to walk to the cemetery and decorate the graves with flowers from their gardens. Once they arrived, one of the women began placing flowers on the graves of the few Union soldiers, too, for they too had given their lives for their beliefs.
  • 1868. Waterloo, NY
    On May 30, on General Logan’s orders, Waterloo held the first formal, city-wide, annual observance of a day dedicated to honoring the war dead from both parties.

There are only some of the examples, as similar ceremonies were held across the country. Eventually, in May 1868, the head of an organization of Union Veterans, General John A. Logan—the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR)—promoted the idea of Decoration Day “to strew with flowers or otherwise decorate the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.”

The end of May was chosen as a perfect time to celebrate the holiday, as there were no significant Civil War battles during this period, and therefore no one side could take credit for the holiday. May is also one of the most idyllic time of the year, when flowers are in full bloom across the country.

Decoration Day to Memorial Day

The evolution from Decoration Day to Memorial Day was a gradual process.

The holiday began its transition after World War I, the next bloody warfare that took the lives of over 116,000 American soldiers. And again, after the staggering loss of life in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. 

Eventually, the holiday associated with the Civil War, turned into an event to commemorate the memory of all American soldiers who gave their lives in all wars

For almost a century, the holiday was held on May 30—the date settled by General Logan. But in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May to create a three-day weekend for federal employees. The change went into effect only in 1971, establishing Memorial Day, the holiday we all know today.

Memorial Day vs Veterans Day

Memorial Day is sometimes confused with another federal holiday, Veterans Day. While both holidays are established to celebrate members of the U.S. military, they are not the same thing. 

In short, the key difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day is that while they are both dedicated to brave servicemen and women, Memorial Day is meant to honor those who gave their lives defending our country, while Veterans Day celebrates those who are still with us

The National Moment of Remembrance

The traditions and rituals of Memorial Day are a unique tapestry of sadness and joy, grief and hope, meaningful patriotism, and the simple joys of life.

Memorial Day continues to evolve, taking on new meanings and traditions. The latest change was in 2000, when a resolution was passed, asking Americans to pause at 3 PM local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation. It is known as the National Moment of Remembrance.

Memorial Day Parades

Every city and town across the United States is decorated and holds a local parade to commemorate Memorial Day. Veterans march, demonstrating their pride, meeting people, sharing memories and experiences in the military, and remembering their fallen comrades-in-arms.

While the parades held in Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C., are known to be the most spectacular, there are myriads of local small-town celebrations across the country.

The Red Poppy

Wherever you observe Memorial Day, you will probably notice people wearing a red poppy on their clothes. This tradition comes from the poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae. 

The poem was written during World War I and tells of red poppies growing amidst the graves of fallen soldiers in Flanders, Belgium. 

In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow.
Between the crosses, row on row,

The poem created a lasting impression of fallen heroes, and the red poppy eventually became one of the primary symbols for Veterans of WWI. Later, this enduring symbol became an integral part of Memorial Day.

Memorial Day Services and Cemeteries

Veterans and their families often arrange memorial service events for their fallen kin. They always welcome new guests. Even if you don’t know anyone personally there, you can always stop in, meet people, and find someone to connect with and talk to. We all know how important this is, especially  for Veterans who struggle with the challenges of transitioning to civilian life.

You can find out information about your local services and events at the nearest VA office

Visiting Veterans’ Cemeteries is another bittersweet tradition observed on Memorial Day. While the graves are usually maintained by Veterans’ family members, when no living relatives are left, various Veteran groups take care of them. It is another great chance to commemorate Memorial Day and meet fellow Veterans.

You can learn more about the upcoming events at the National Cemetery Administration website.  

Memorial Day Is Also About Kinship and Hope 

As Memorial Day is also the unofficial start of the summer season, the holiday also symbolizes hope and new beginnings. It is a chance to bring several generations of families together, break out the barbecues, enjoy beaches and swimming pools, and spend quality time with loved ones.

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