Memorial Day is one of those holidays that many Americans don’t know the significance about how it came about. They just know it is the last Monday in May that they get off of work and that it signals the start of the summer season. It means so much more than that.
Memorial Day, formerly Decoration Day, in the United States, honors those who have died in the nation’s wars. It originated during the American Civil War when citizens placed flowers on the graves of those who had been killed in battle. More than a half dozen places have claimed to be the birthplace of the holiday. In October 1864, for instance, three women in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, are said to have decorated the graves of loved ones who died during the Civil War; they then returned in July 1865 accompanied by many of their fellow citizens for a more general commemoration. A large observance, primarily involving African Americans, took place in May 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina. Columbus, Mississippi, held a formal observance for both Union and Confederate dead in 1866. By congressional proclamation in 1966, Waterloo, New York, was cited as the birthplace, also in 1866, of the observance. In 1868 John A. Logan, the commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans, promoted a national holiday on May 30 “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.”
After World War I, as the day came to be observed in honor of those who had died in all U.S. wars, its name changed from Decoration Day to Memorial Day. Since 1971 Memorial Day has been observed on the last Monday in May. A number of Southern states also observe a separate day to honor the Confederate dead. Memorial Day is observed with the laying of a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, and by religious services, parades, and speeches nationwide. Flags, insignia, and flowers are placed on the graves of veterans in local cemeteries.
Elizabeth Fraser—U.S. Army photo/Arlington National Cemetery
Interesting Facts About Memorial Day
In December 2000, Congress passed a law requiring Americans to pause at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day to remember and honor the fallen. It is called the National Moment of Remembrance. Did you know that?
In addition to the national holiday, nine states officially set aside a day to honor those who died fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War: Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, Virginia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Georgia. The days vary, but only Virginia observes Confederate Memorial Day on the last Monday of May, in accordance with the federal observance of Memorial Day.
Waterloo, New York is considered the birthplace of Memorial Day. According to Waterloo’s website, in 1966 Congress unanimously passed a resolution to officially recognize Waterloo as the birthplace of Memorial Day. However, it remains a contentious debate, with other towns, like Boalsburg, Pa., claiming the title of “Birthplace of Memorial Day” as well.
Poppies have come to symbolize fallen soldiers, a tradition that began with the poem, “In Flanders Fields” by Lieutenant John McCrae.
If you’re flying an American flag on Memorial Day, it should be held at half-staff until noon, then at its full height from noon to sunset, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
So, before you partake in your celebrations or just enjoy your day off, remember the importance of this day and those that died fighting for our nation.