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The History of Memorial Day: 7 Patriotic Facts Every American Should Know
The holiday is about much more than a three-day weekend.
By Emily VanSchmus Updated March 29, 2021
It's easy to associate Memorial Day weekend with weekend barbecues and lake trips, but the holiday is about far more. Memorial Day, which has been a national holiday since 1868, is dedicated to the men and women who have died while serving in a branch of the United States military.
And since social distancing measures may prohibit your traditional Memorial Day activities like remembrance parades or placing flags at gravesites, this year is the perfect time to learn about the origins of the holiday from home. Take some time to learn about the history of Memorial Day and reflect on the sacrifices made by military members
When Is Memorial Day?
Memorial Day 2021 is Monday, May 31. From 1868 to 1970, Memorial Day was celebrated on May 30 (regardless of what day of the week it fell on), but since 1971, the holiday has been celebrated on the last Monday of May.
Memorial Day vs. Veteran's Day
Memorial Day is commonly mixed up with other military holidays observed in the United States. So, what's the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day? Memorial Day observes those who have died while serving in the United States Armed Forces, while Veterans Day, celebrated annually on November 11, honors those who have served or are serving. Armed Forces Day (celebrated on the third Saturday in May) celebrates those who are currently serving in a branch of the military.
How to Celebrate Memorial Day
While Memorial Day barbecues, lake days, and camping trips are common activities for the three-day weekend, make sure you're celebrating the holiday respectfully. Before you fire up the grill, volunteer to place miniature American flags ($8 for 25 flags, Amazon) at military gravesites or in local parks. If you have a flag pole, be sure to fly your flag at half-mast on the holiday as well.
Here are seven more facts you may not know about the history of Memorial Day.
1. Memorial Day Was Unofficially Started by Women
Before the Civil War ended, women's groups got together to decorate the graves of the soldiers who had passed away. On April 12, 1886, the Columbus Ladies Memorial Association in Columbus, Georgia, announced they would dedicate one day a year to decorating graves as a way to remember fallen soldiers. This was one of many events put on by local Ladies Memorial Associations that eventually led to the federal holiday.
2It Was Originally Called Decoration Day
The holiday wasn’t called Memorial Day until 1971: Before that, it was known as Decoration Day. The very first Decoration Day was celebrated on May 30, 1868, as the future president James A. Garfield gave a remembrance speech to thousands of onlookers at Arlington National Cemetery. Over the years, the day began to be referred to as Memorial Day, and for consistency’s sake, it was nationally re-named in 1971.
3It Wasn’t a Federal Holiday Until 1971
In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act which proclaimed that Memorial Day would be celebrated on the last Monday each May and gave all federal employees the day off of work. But it wasn’t named an official federal holiday until 1971, more than 100 years after the end of the Civil War.
4Newly Freed Slaves Held One of the First Memorial Day Celebrations
One of the very first Memorial Day celebrations on record was held by newly freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina. On May 1, 1865, freed slaves gathered with members of the U.S. Colored Troops to bury and honor fallen Union soldiers. A crowd of 10,000 people formed a parade around an old race track, where they sang hymns and decorated graves.
5Memorial Day includes a National Moment of Remembrance
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the National Moment of Remembrance Act, which was signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000. The act asks all Americans to observe a national moment of remembrance at 3:00 p.m. local time on the afternoon of Memorial Day.
6Flags Are to be Flown at Half-Mast Until Noon
You might think that the American flag should be flown at half-mast all day, but the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs states that the flag should be flown at half-staff “from sunrise until noon only, then raised briskly to the top of the staff until sunset, in honor of the nation’s battle heroes.” This goes for all flags on government buildings, grounds, and naval vessels, as well as flags flown by private citizens.
7Poppies Are a Symbol of Memorial Day
Poppies have long been used to remember fallen soldiers after the bright red flowers began to bloom on World War I battlefields following the end of the war. Originally a symbol used to honor British soldiers who died in World War I, the flower also became associated with Memorial Day in 1915 when Moina Michael, a Georgia teacher and wartime volunteer, penned the poem "We Shall Keep the Faith" as part of a campaign to make poppies a national symbol of remembrance.
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