What is Memorial Day?

Each year Americans across the country get the last Monday in May off. We are free of our school and work obligations; plus we are able to sleep in. But how often do we sit back and ponder on why we get this day off? Surely not as often as we should. The last Monday in May holds one of the most significant holidays in American history: Memorial Day. 

Originally deemed “Decoration Day” in 1868 by General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, this holiday has been around for decades. The first tributes and commemorations date back to the late 1860s after the detrimental Civil War. At the time, the Civil War claimed more lives than any other American conflict; this called for the first national cemetery to be established. During this time, springtime tributes became common to honor fallen soldiers. Fellow Americans gathered to pay tributes and respects by reciting prayers and decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers. Once World War I came around in the early 1900s, the holiday became established as Memorial Day. Memorial Day then evolved to honor not only lives lost in the Civil War but rather lives lost in all wars. In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Holiday Act – this established Memorial Day as a federal holiday and declared that it be held on the last Monday in May, to give federal workers a three-day weekend. 

There are numerous ways to commemorate this important holiday; the most common way Americans celebrate is by attending ceremonies and parades. Most cities host these events, which usually conclude with a memorial service. This is a great way to show appreciation for all service members, past and present. You can also participate in the National Moment of Remembrance. At 3 PM on Memorial Day we are asked to pause for one minute in an act of national unity. So no matter who or where you are, there is always a way to pay your respects. A more personal gesture to say ‘thank you’ is by bringing flowers to a veterans’ cemetery. You don’t need to have personally known a fallen service member to do this, either! Leaving flowers is a beautiful sight of gratitude, and shows immense amounts of respect to those who have served our country. 

While all flowers are uniquely stunning, there is one type in particular which symbolizes Memorial Day: the red poppy. In 1915, Moina Michael, inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields”, decided to write a similar poem in which she symbolized the red in poppy as blood of fallen soldiers. She conceived the idea to wear poppies on Memorial Day – she ended up selling poppies to her friends and co-workers, then donated the money to servicemen in need. Word of her idea to wear poppies on Memorial Day soon became normalized. In fact, it became so popular that in 1922, the VFV (Veterans of Foreign Wars) became the first national organization to sell poppies. The VFV even created a program called their “Buddy” poppy program where disabled veterans made and sold artificial poppies. This program is still active today! With this program not only do you get a beautiful flower, but you are giving back to those who’ve served our country.

Evidently, Americans love the tradition of receiving a three-day weekend in May. It’s easy to forget why we celebrate Memorial Day while eating cheeseburgers by the pool. But this is a day of remembrance; it’s all about paying our respects to the men and women who’ve lost their lives serving our country.

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