Towards the end of May, U.S. citizens around the country observe Memorial Day. Many people visit cemeteries or places that remind them of their loved ones. Pancake breakfasts, BBQs, swimming parties, and picnics are also common ways to celebrate the holiday and kick off the summer months. But there’s so much more to Memorial Day than gatherings and summer fun. What is Memorial Day, and why do we celebrate it?
What Is Memorial Day, and Why Do We Celebrate It?
Memorial Day is a U.S. national holiday that honors the country’s military members who died in service. The holiday offers citizens a chance to reflect on the countless individuals who served and lost their lives and come together with the families and communities left behind.
Similarly, Veterans Day and Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day both honor military members in the U.S. Veterans Day honors all U.S. veterans, both dead and alive, while Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day commemorates individuals who died at Pearl Harbor.
When Is Memorial Day?
Memorial Day is observed on the last Monday in May as a federal holiday in the United States. Originally, Memorial Day was held on May 30th, but the day was later changed to turn it into a 3-day weekend. To make the change, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which took effect in 1968.
Several other countries also celebrate their own versions of Memorial Day throughout the year. For example, Israel celebrates Yom HaZikaron at the beginning of May while some Canadians celebrate Memorial day alongside Canada Day in July. Remembrance Day is a similar holiday observed in the UK and Canada as well. Other countries have unique names for their holiday, such as Anzac Day in New Zealand, which is celebrated in April.
History of Memorial Day
Memorial Day history in the U.S. dates back to the Civil War in the 1860s. Back then, it went by a different name—Decoration Day—named for the tradition of decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers and flags.
It evolved to what is known as Memorial Day following World War I. Decoration Day originally honored only Civil War soldiers, but the holiday took on a greater meaning of all fallen U.S. service members as the United States entered its next major conflict: World War I.
Why Was Memorial Day Originally Started?
The American Civil War represented an unprecedented conflict in the United States, and it claimed more lives than any other U.S. war. Many lost loved ones whom they sought to honor and remember, and people often showed their love by laying flowers on their soldiers’ graves. Communities gathered together to mourn their losses, and this led to Decoration Day, now known as Memorial Day.
Why Is Memorial Day in May?
Memorial Day was originally held in May to remember soldiers who died in the Civil War, which ended in the spring of 1865. May 30th was believed to be chosen because flowers would be in full bloom to decorate graves.
Who Really Started Memorial Day?
John A. Logan, the leader of a Union veteran society, is often hailed as the person that started Memorial Day. He first called for May 30th to become a national holiday in 1868 to remember those “whose bodies now lay in rest in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.” By 1890, every northern state had made Decoration Day an official holiday.
However, dozens of others could claim to have started Memorial Day. In reality, it probably formed gradually over time as individuals, communities, and traditions morphed together. These are a few of the other early Memorial Day celebrations:
- On May 1, 1865, a group of 10,000 former slaves gathered following the conclusion of the Civil War. Together, they honored 257 Union Soldiers who were buried in a mass grave.
- Waterloo, New York, is sometimes referred to as Memorial Day’s birthplace. This city held community-wide events for the holiday starting in 1866. The entire community came together to decorate graves with flowers and flags and even closed businesses to observe the holiday.
- Mary Ann Williams of the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus also called for a national holiday in March of 1866. Several southern states started celebrating on April 26 after her letter to the women in the South.
How Can You Celebrate Memorial Day?
Memorial Day is full of history and meaning, and there are several ways you can celebrate. However you choose to recognize the day, try to make it meaningful for you. These ideas can get you started:
- Watch a broadcast of the ceremony held at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
- Visit a military cemetery to decorate graves with flowers or flags.
- Record stories and memories of your military relatives.
- Attend local events, such as parades, speeches, or religious services.
- Share family photos of your military ancestors, or try comparing your own photos with family photos to find the resemblance.
- Observe a moment of silence at 3:00 pm, the national moment of remembrance.
- Wear a red poppy, an international symbol of remembrance.
- Learn about your military ancestors by diving into military records.