For many Americans Memorial Day represents a three-day weekend that unofficially kicks off the summer season. This is even though Memorial Day occurs on the last Monday in May and summer doesn’t officially begin until later in the month of June. It is usually hallmarked by spending time at the beach, eating at barbecues, camping in state parks, and watching or participating in parades.
The real meaning of Memorial Day, though, is to set aside a day to remember and honor those who have fallen in service to our great nation. These are the men and women who have paved the way for the freedoms we all celebrate today.
Memorial Day Origins
Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day. Nearly 5,000 participants at the first Decoration Day in May 1868 spread flowers and other decorations over the graves of soldiers of the Civil War (Union and Confederate soldiers alike) who were buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
President Garfield addressed the crowds at Arlington National Cemetery on the first Memorial Day saying,
“If silence is ever golden, it must be beside the graves of 15,000 men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem the music of which can never be sung.”
While the debate over the birthplace of Memorial Day has been contentious, with many towns claiming the honor, Congress declared Waterloo, New York as the official birthplace of the day in 1966.
Memorial Day was originally held on May 30 because that date didn’t coincide with the date of any specific battle fought in the war.
Memorial Day’s Evolution
Throughout the years, the holiday evolved from honoring soldiers of the Civil War to honoring soldiers involved in other wars and conflicts who fought and died for our country. This includes World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Desert Shield, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn, Operation Enduring Freedom, and countless other peacekeeping and humanitarian missions in which our soldiers have made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty.
Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30 until 1971 when the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 went into effect establishing Memorial Day as the last Monday in May. The law, which declared the day to be a federal holiday, also created a three day weekend for all federal employees.
In 1922, inspired by the John McCrae poem, In Flander’s Field, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) began distributing poppies as the official memorial flowers of Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States. Two years later, the VFW began efforts to assemble artificial poppies. These poppies, assembled by disabled or needy veterans who were (and still are) paid for their work, have been designated as Buddy Poppies.
Memorial Day Today
Most people are unaware that Congress passed an additional law in December 2000 concerning Memorial Day. This law requires Americans to pause at 3:00 p.m. in their time zones to honor fallen soldiers by having a moment of silence or listening to Taps. This act is the National Moment of Remembrance.
Modern celebrations of Memorial Day often include picnics, beaches, family, and friends. It’s a celebration for most people that is sometimes commemorated with parades, floats, and carnival rides punctuated with moments of remembrance in homes, parks, on beaches, and countless other venues across the country.
For some it is a day of celebrating the very freedoms soldiers, past and present, have sacrificed their lives, families, and health to defend. For others, it’s a day of sorrow to mourn the loss of husbands, wives, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, family, and friends who are no longer with them.
Factoids About Memorial Day in the U.S.
One of the best ways to honor these fallen soldiers, though, is to celebrate life and freedom, and most Americans have that well in hand. Here are a few interesting bits of information about Memorial Day in America.
- Americans consume approximately 818 hot dogs for every second of every day beginning on Memorial Day through Labor Day each year.
- The Memorial Day weekend will see more than 36 million people on roadways traveling distances greater than 50 miles.
- The first Indy 500 was held on Memorial Day (May 30, 1911).
- Since 1974, the Indianapolis 500 race has always been scheduled for Memorial Day weekend on Sunday.
- Memorial Day has its own unique flag etiquette where the flag is to be displayed at half staff until noon and then raised to full staff until sunset.
It’s important for families and friends to get together and celebrate the liberties of being American on Memorial Day. It’s a tradition in itself. Whether you have barbecues, chow down on hot dogs, or pay a visit to the lake, ocean, or other favorite body of water, don’t forget to take a moment in the midst of your celebrations to remember those who have paid the ultimate price for those liberties.