Most Americans think of Memorial Day as the unofficial kickoff to summer, the capping of a three-day weekend filled with cookouts and trips to the beach. But beyond some vague notion of patriotism, many aren’t 100% sure what the holiday represents, often confusing it with Veterans Day. Memorial Day is a federal holiday designated to honor those who died in military service to our country. Kudos to you if you already knew that. For the rest of us, here’s a quick refresher on the history and meaning of Memorial Day.
Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day, when towns honored Civil War dead by decorating their graves. The practice was widespread throughout the North in the late 1860s; over two-dozen towns alleged to be the holiday’s birthplace. But southern women’s groups decorated graves possibly before the end of the Civil War.
John A. Logan (Photo Credit: Public Domain)
The origins of the idea may forever be a mystery. But we do know that General John A. Logan, in his General Order No. 11, first proclaimed that “The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated 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, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land.” Flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery that day. And cemeteries in 27 states held events.
Michigan became the first state to officially recognize the holiday in 1871. Not all states were on board though. Many southern states continued to honor their war dead on other spring days besides May 30 until after World War I, when the scope of the holiday was broadened to include all Americans who died fighting in any war.
The adoption of the name “Memorial Day” was gradual. Coined in the late 19th century, it became commonplace after World War II and official in 1967. The following year, Congress passed the National Holiday Act, moving the holiday from May 30 to the last Monday in May. That took effect in 1971. The “where it began” debate continued until 1966, when Lyndon B. Johnson officially declared Waterloo N.Y. as the birthplace, settling the matter once and for all.
Moina Michael postage stamp (Photo Credit: Public Domain)
That’s the what, where and why of Memorial Day. But why do we observe the holiday with poppies, parades or cemetery observances? In 1915, inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields,” University of Georgia professor Moina Michael penned her own poem:
We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.
It was her idea to wear red poppies on Decoration Day/Memorial Day to honor fallen servicemen. And the idea caught on. Poppies were sold to help needy servicemen, and by 1922, the Veterans of Foreign Wars was selling poppies across the country in the weeks leading up to the holiday.
Parades were a customary observance of the holiday early on. However as time went on, some felt these events diluted the day’s true meaning. Washington D.C. even discontinued its Memorial Day parade for close to 70 years. Not until 2005 did our nation’s capital continue the tradition. The National Memorial Day Parade now draws hundreds of thousands of spectators along with numerous celebrities. Parades can now be found throughout the country, in big cities and small towns, over the holiday weekend.
Arlington National Cemetery (Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Of course the decoration of graves has remained a constant through the years. Since the late 1950s, soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry have placed American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery on the Thursday before Memorial Day. Boy and Girl Scouts have a similar tradition, started in 1998. They put a candle at the grave site of each soldier buried at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, where four Civil War battles were fought. These days, it is customary for the President or Vice-President to give a speech honoring the contributions of the dead and lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
To help reeducate and remind Americans of Memorial Day’s true meaning, the “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution, passed in 2000, asks all Americans to “…voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence” at 3 p.m. local time. However you choose to celebrate this Memorial Day, remember to honor those who’ve sacrificed their lives protecting our freedom.
Lauren O’Neill is a freelance writer, bookworm, weekend adventurer & artist living in Brighton, MA and trying to figure out life after art school. You can find more of her pursuits on her blog Pack n’ Play.