Memorial Day may be one of the most important holidays to our military community.
On the last Monday of every May, our nation honors those who gave the ultimate sacrifice while serving our country.
This federal holiday is not to be confused with Veterans Day, which celebrates all military service personnel, or Armed Forces Day, which celebrates all active duty service members.
In this post we share why Memorial Day is observed, and how you can honor those who gave their lives for our freedom.
History of Memorial Day
Originally called Decoration Day, this federally-recognized day became official in 1971.
There’s lots of dispute as to where, when, and how the holiday began. Columbus State University even has a dedicated Center for Memorial Day Research.
Here are the Memorial Day facts we do know:
- In May 1966, Waterloo, N.Y. was declared by President Lyndon Johnson as the birthplace of Memorial Day.
- Laying flowers on soldiers graves is older than the civil war. The South began decorating soldiers graves as early as 1861, according to some accounts. The North joined in the practice in 1868.
- A proclamation issued by General John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — an organization of and for Union Civil War veterans — on May 5, 1868 called for “Decoration Day” to be observed annually and nationwide. He is seen as being instrumental in the day being honored as a national holiday.
- By 1890, all northern states had joined in on recognizing the holiday. The holiday originally honored only soldiers who died in the Civil War as the southern states honored their deceased on different days than the North.
- The holiday was revised after WW1 to honor all Americans who gave their lives — that’s when the South and the North began celebrating on the same day.
- The National Holiday Act of 1971 designated the last Monday in May as Memorial Day. Previously it was May 30.
- Soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment place American flags at each grave in Arlington National Cemetery on the Thursday before Memorial Day. They patrol the entire weekend so that each flag is protected and standing through Memorial Day.
8 Ways to Honor the Deceased
Any American can show honor during Memorial Day weekend to the service members who have died in the line of duty.
Your displays of respect don’t need to be as elaborate as planning a trip to national cemeteries. Plenty of veteran organizations host events throughout the country in their respective communities, and they would love for you to join them.
Check with your military installation or base, VFW, and other local veteran groups for a calendar of events. Here’s a listing of other ways to start your own Memorial Day traditions:
1. Watch the National Memorial Day Concert
This event is held at the nation’s capitol at 8 p.m. the Sunday before Memorial Day. It’s nationally-televised on PBS, and is a multi-award-winning television event and an American tradition. If you’re in Washington, D.C., you can catch the free concert held on the west lawn of the Capitol Building.
Watch the National Memorial Day Concert here.
2. Take Part in a Parade
Most communities hold a Memorial Day Parade to honor the fallen. The largest parades take place in Washington, D.C., New York, and Chicago.
3. Visit Cemeteries and Memorials
You can visit local cemeteries and place flowers and flags on soldiers’ graves. Most veteran graves are marked. Pause for a moment of silence, or offer a prayer for the deceased.
4. Join or Organize a Volunteer Event
Many clubs, like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, volunteer to clean-up and decorate soldiers’ graves in honor of Memorial Day. See if you can join in on organizing the event.
5. Fundraise for Unique Causes
If you love to arrange events, you can raise funds for organizations like the Honor Flight Network, which flies veterans to D.C. to visit and reflect at memorials that honor those who perished in service. Current priority is given to senior veterans to see their respective memorials.
6. Wear a Red Poppy
This tradition honors those who have fallen in battle. It’s based on a 1915 poem In Flanders Field by John McCrae, a World War I brigade surgeon. The poem is based on the flowers he saw popping up on the battlefield.
7. Fly an American Flag
On Memorial Day, flags should be flown at half-staff from sunrise to noon, then raised to full-staff until sunset.
8. Stop for the Moment of Remembrance
Observe the national one-minute Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. (all time zones) on Memorial Day. In 2000, that time frame was chosen due to the fact most Americans are enjoying their freedom to the fullest on Memorial Day at that time.
Remember the Real Reason for Memorial Day
While it may seem like just another long weekend for some, there’s an undeniably sad reason for the holiday.
We’ve lost American lives.
As you enjoy your freedoms during the holiday weekend, even if you take a moment or two, remember those who have died in service. It’s the real reason for Memorial Day and one that can’t be forgotten.
If anything, we hope our post inspires you to think of new ways of creating Memorial Day traditions that include honoring fallen service members.
Although its official origins and birthplace are often disputed, Memorial Day is and will always be a day to remember all of those who have given their lives for our country.