child decorating the grave of a fallen soldier

The History of Memorial Day in the United States

Memorial Day is just around the corner. It will be celebrated on the 30th of May this year. Some associate this day with being the unofficial start of summer. Others see it as a good day to shop and rush to the stores to purchase items on sale. However, the day means a lot more than that.

In today’s post, we’ll discover what Memorial Day is really about. We will find out why and when it became a holiday and explore more about its history before finally seeing how the day is celebrated around the country.

What is Memorial Day?

Graves at a cemetery decorated with flags
Image Credit: Justin Casey via Unsplash

Memorial Day is celebrated on the last Monday in the month of May. It is a day reserved to honour the United States Armed Forces personnel who sacrificed their lives for the freedom and integrity of the country. It recognizes and commemorates both fallen soldiers in all American wars.

On this day, people pause and reflect on how brave American soldiers dedicated their lives to the protection of the country,

The United States is not the only nation to set aside a day for remembering their war dead. In the UK, for instance, there is Remembrance Day, Armistice Day in most European countries, Volkstrauertag in Germany, Yom Hazikaron in Israel, Victory Day in Russia and ANZAC day in Australia and New Zealand.

Difference between Memorial Day and other Patriotic Holidays

Memorial Day is often confused with other patriotic holidays such as Veteran’s Day and Armed Forces Day. First of all, Memorial Day is always celebrated on the last Monday in the month of May. It is also celebrated in honour of the fallen soldiers of the United States Armed Forces. Veteran’s Day or Armistice Day, on the other hand, is celebrated on 11th November. It commemorates all military veterans of the United States Armed Forces. This includes both alive and deceased military veterans. Armed Forces Day, is another occasion that is confused with Memorial Day. However, it is celebrated on the 3rd Saturday in May and honours those who are currently serving in the United States Armed Forces.

History of Memorial Day

Honouring the war dead is an ancient ritual that dates back around 4000 years. Archaeologists suggest that the White Monument in Tell Banat, Syria may be the oldest known war memorial in the world. They noticed certain patterns in the way bone deposits from corpses were found buried in the mound. This led them to suggest that the buried corpses must have belonged to members of some army.

In 431 BC, in ancient Greece, there is evidence of a special service arranged in honour of soldiers who died in battle. The Athenian leader and statesman, Pericles, delivered a speech to honour the fallen soldiers of the Peloponnesian War. This happens to be the first recorded in history where a memorial day of sorts was observed to honour fallen soldiers. The Greco-Romans would continue hosting similar events for their war dead. In addition to speeches, people would gather to adorn the graves of the soldiers with flowers and arrange feasts in their honour.

Honouring the Fallen Soldiers of the Civil War

In the United States, the very first observance of remembering the war dead dates back to the time of the Civil War. The American Civil War ended in 1865 and by then, around 620,000 soldiers from both the Union and Confederate sides lost their lives. After the war, and in some cases, even before it, various communities in the country gathered to mourn their lost loved ones. This marks the origins of Memorial Day in America. How or where exactly this tradition started is unknown. An estimated 25 places are claiming they were responsible for starting the holiday. Friends and families of soldiers from both sides of the war would gather at their graves and place flags and flowers every spring. This started a tradition that is followed even today.

Regardless of where the observance of Memorial Day really started, in 1966, former New York Governor, Nelson A. Rockefeller, declared Waterloo, New York as the official birthplace of the holiday. This was then approved by the United States Congress. The reason Waterloo became the birthplace of this day, of all places, is because Rockefeller claimed this was where the “first, formal, complete, well-planned, village-wide observance of a day entirely dedicated to honouring the war dead” was held in 1866.

Decoration Day

women standing near a decorated grave
An image from Decoration Day in 1899. Image Credit: Civil War Quilts

The tradition of decorating the soldiers’ graves every spring continued. Soon, a separate day in the year was dedicated to this purpose. General A John Logan, the leader of the Union Veteran association and war veteran united this tradition into a nationwide holiday known as Decoration Day. This day was to be observed on 30th May because that was when flowers were most likely to bloom in the fields.

The first national Decoration Day was celebrated in 1868. On this day, 5000 mourners gathered at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. They placed flowers and ribbons on around 20,000 graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers. Flags and symbols were also placed on their graves. They corresponded to which side the soldiers fought for. On this day, former president Ulysses S. Grant also attended the observance and the former Union General, James Garfield, delivered a speech.

From Decoration Day to Memorial Day

By 1890, Decoration Day became a state holiday. Each state now had its own form of Decoration Day, meaning, the holiday was being celebrated by the whole country. Decoration Day grew throughout the 1800s and by the end of that century, the holiday was named Memorial Day. However, it wasn’t before the First World War that Memorial Day became more popular than its former name. Decoration Day was associated with honouring the fallen soldiers who lost their lives during the Civil War.

While Memorial Day would now be associated more with honouring all American soldiers in all wars. Not just the Civil War. During the First World War, around 130,000 American soldiers lost their lives. On Memorial Day, their friends and families no longer separately honoured them as Union or Confederate soldiers. The war had finally united the northern and southern states. While by now the holiday was known to the masses as Memorial Day, it wasn’t before 1967 that it was officially known by that name. It was also around this time that the date of celebrating Memorial Day changed. Since 1868, the holiday was being observed every 30th May. However, according to the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of June 28th 1968, Memorial Day would now be celebrated on the last Monday of May every year. It wasn’t before 1971 that this law was enforced.

During this time, schools, post offices, some banks and some businesses are closed on this day. This would give most employees and students a long weekend during which they reunite with their families and celebrate the holiday in different ways. This three-day long weekend is called the Memorial Day weekend.

How is Memorial Day Celebrated?

On Memorial Day, Americans take the day to honour the men and women who lost their lives while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Celebrations for the day are expected to be respectful and sincere. Families and friends of fallen soldiers gather at the cemetery and decorate the graves of their loved ones with flags, ribbons, fresh flowers, crosses, wreaths and other symbols. Much like in the olden days. One flower that is synonymous with Memorial Day is the red poppy. Red poppies made of fabric or paper are pinned on the left lapel in honour of the fallen soldiers.

Significance of the Red Poppy

fabric poppy pinned to left lapel
Poppy pinned on the left lapel. Image Credit: Ava’s Flowers

The red poppy became a symbol of remembrance during the First World War. Poppies are flowers that can grow in the most unlikely of places, even on the battleground. The war tore the lands apart and everything was in ruins. Despite this wreckage, in spring, red poppies emerged from the ground. Poppies have therefore become a symbol of hope and resilience. The flower became associated with remembering war casualties after being inspired by a poem. In 1915, a Canadian surgeon, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, was inspired to write the famous memorial poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. This was after he saw numerous red poppies blooming in the place where several soldiers had recently lost their lives. The place now known as Flanders Field was a major battlefield located between West and East Flanders, in Belgium.

The tradition of wearing poppies started with Professor Moina Michael of the American University of Georgia. She read McCrae’s poem and was so moved by it that she started wearing a red poppy in honour of the fallen soldiers. She also suggested the idea of making red poppies and selling them to raise funds for war veterans and their families. This is a tradition that continues to this day.

Memorial Day Services

President Joe Biden places a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
President Joe Biden places a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day 2021. Image Credit: Spectrum News 

Also, on Memorial Day, many cemeteries offer special services to the public. So, in addition to placing flowers and flags on graves and wearing poppies, people attend these services. In Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, for example, the president of the United States or their designee, delivers a speech, addresses the Memorial Day ceremony and does the wreath-laying ceremony. In this ceremony, the president places a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The tomb serves as the final resting place for three unidentified American soldiers who lost their lives during the First World War. It also acts as a symbol for all those soldiers who weren’t able to be identified or located after the war. The very first time that the unknown soldiers were honoured was on Veteran’s Day 1921, in Arlington National Cemetery. Since then, this ceremony has become a yearly event.

National Moment of Remembrance

The day is also marked by placing flags at half-staff position till noon. Then it is raised to the top until sunset, in honour of the fallen soldiers. At 3 pm local time, Americans stop whatever they are doing and pause for a minute of silence to remember the men and women who died fighting for the country. 3 pm is officially recognized as the national moment of remembrance. This is according to the National Moment of Remembrance Act 2000, signed by former president Bill Clinton. 3 pm was chosen because that is when most Americans take the time off to observe the national holiday.

Vigils and Parades

National Memorial Day Parade banner
The National Memorial Day Parade in Washington D.C.

On this day, many vigils are held to honour and remember the fallen soldiers who fought for the country’s freedom. Additionally, various communities around the country organize Memorial Day parades. These parades are quite memorable. Thousands of people gather to watch marching bands comprising both active and retired military personnel holding the American flag. They also see patriotic floats march in procession. The oldest running Memorial Day parade is the Ironton-Lawrence Memorial Day Parade, in Ironton, Ohio. It has been running since 1868. The largest Memorial Day Parade is the National Memorial Day Parade, which takes place in Washington DC. It is one of the most famous in the country. So much so that it is televised on national TV. Other large parades take place in New York and Chicago.

Memorial Day, an Unofficial Start to Summer

The main objective of observing Memorial Day is to pay tribute to the soldiers who lost their lives fighting for their country. Many Americans celebrate the day by attending memorial services, vigils and parades as we discussed earlier. Others use this time to reunite with family and friends to kick start summer. They use the long weekend to start the summer season early.

Summer doesn’t officially begin until the 21st of June or the Summer solstice, but the weather is pleasant and warm during this time of the year. It is also quite close to the summer season. Most importantly, people get a long weekend off from work and school for Memorial Day. It is also around this time that schools close and kids get off for their summer break. This provides the right opportunity for families to take a short vacation together. For these reasons, the Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial beginning of summer.

Memorial Day barbeque
Image Credit: CNN

During this time, people gather and engage in various outdoor activities. Some visit the nearby beach or relax in a pool to cool off the heat. They even visit the nearest lake or river to go tubing in the cool water. Others prefer to travel across the country. They may go on long drives taking scenic routes. Or fly across the country to explore another city. Camping is another popular activity during the Memorial Day weekend. So is picnicking. Large families gather after months and spend an afternoon playing games, hosting barbeques, drinking beer and just catching up. Barbequing has in fact become a Memorial Day weekend tradition for many. Hotdogs, burgers, sausages, ribs, chicken wings, steak, kebabs, pork chops, grilled corn served with coleslaw, potato salads and other salads are some of the many classic foods enjoyed on this day.

Memorial Day Sales

Lowe's Memorial Day sale flyer.
Lowe’s Memorial Day sale flyer. Image Credit: Southern Savers

Another activity that many look forward to during the Memorial Day weekend is shopping. While most businesses are closed around this time, retail stores are open and their products are on sale. There are attractive discounts on things like furniture, electronic devices, appliances, mattresses, barbeque equipment, pools, patio furniture and so much more. Home Depot, Best Buy, Lowes, Publix, Macy’s, Starbucks, Pottery Barn, Walmart and Target are a few of many shops that go on sale during the Memorial Day weekend.

There are a few reasons why sales are going on around this time. The first is that Americans tend to spend more during the warmer months of the year. Secondly, a long weekend gives consumers more time to shop. That way, they can take the time to test and compare products like furniture, mattresses, appliances and outdoor equipment. These products become especially necessary while moving into a new place. Interestingly, most Americans move to new homes between the months of May to August. Lastly, Memorial Day sales have become a tradition and are now a part of the Memorial Day celebrations.

Some stores slowly start going on sale at the beginning of May but they’re in full swing a week or two before the Memorial Day weekend. These sales last all the way until Memorial Day.

Attend Annual Events

Numerous events are hosted throughout the country during the Memorial Day weekend. There is everything from cultural events, sports events and marathons to music events, carnivals and so much. Something is going on for everyone’s likes and interests. Here are some of the many events that are organized every year during the Memorial Day weekend.

First on the list are music events and music festivals. Music lovers have a variety of music festivals and events to choose to attend during the Memorial Day weekend. These music festivals attract local and international artists to perform in various genres. There are genre-specific music festivals as well, meaning there is something for everyone’s taste. Some of the more popular music festivals are, for example, Boston Calling, a 3 day in Allston, Massachusetts; the 3-day BottleRock music festival in Napa Valley, California and California Roots Music and Art Festival in Monterey, California.

BottleRock Napa Valley crowd
BottleRock Napa Valley. Image Credit: Carnifest

There is also Summer Camp, Chillicothe, Illinois. It is the biggest event in the Midwest during the Memorial Day weekend. For electronic dance music Sunset Music Festival in Tampa, Florida is one of the largest events in the area. Another major music festival is the Atlanta Jazz Festival in Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Georgia. This two-day festival is one of the largest free jazz festivals in the United States.

Memorial Day weekend is also when the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina starts. This is a seventeen-day festival founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Gian Carlo Menotti in 1977. It is a performing arts festival where established artists perform dance, opera, theatre, comedy and music of various genres.

The Indy 500

sports cars racing at the Indy 500
Indy500 race. Image Credit: Indycar

Another event worth attending during the Memorial Day weekend is the Indianapolis 500 or the Indy 500. It is an automobile race that has been hosted every year since 1911. Today it is held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In this race, professional drivers race each other to complete 200 laps or 500 miles. The Indy 500 is one of the most famous motorsports events in the country. Thousands of people gather to witness this single-day event. This year, the event will take place on 29th May.

Last but not least is the Air and Sea Show in Miami Beach, Florida. The two-day event starts by exhibiting technology and equipment used by the five branches of the United States Military, the police force, firefighters and first responder agencies. Then, once the exhibition and show are over, various artists from across the country and the world perform on stage. Even the U.S. Military Bands and Drill Teams take the stage to perform.

The True Meaning of Memorial Day

Graves lined up at a cemetery
Image Credit: Twitter

The three-day-long weekend, as we saw, provides the necessary pause from one’s fast-paced life. The weather is pleasant and there is so much to do with family and friends. But, all this mustn’t take away the focus from the real reason Memorial Day is celebrated. At the end of the day, it is a sombre holiday meant to honour the brave soldiers who died fighting for the freedom of the country. Remembering them and the ultimate sacrifice made by them is what Memorial Day is about.

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