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Memorial Day, May 31, for many Americans, conjures up images of hamburgers, hot dogs, swimming pools, and summertime . But the last Monday in May serves, most importantly, as a time to honor those who died while fighting in the U.S. Armed Forces. It’s a holiday steeped in somber American history and tradition. The day actually began as “Decoration Day,” following the Civil War, when mourners placed flowers on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers. Yes, Memorial Day has also come to signify the “unofficial” start of summer, but let’s remember the heroes who made it all possible.
When is Memorial Day 2021?
Men and women who’ve served and sacrificed their lives in the U.S. Armed Forces are honored on Memorial Day on May 31.
History of Memorial Day
The Civil War ended in the spring of 1865 when Robert E. Lee surrendered the last major Confederate army to Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse onmApril 9. Over 620,000 soldiers died in the four-year conflict. Gen. John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic (an organization of Union veterans) would eventually select May 30, 1868 as a day to pay tribute to the fallen:
“The 30th 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 churchyard in the land…”
Logan apparently chose May 30 because flowers would be in bloom all over the country. By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation. States passed proclamations, and the Army and Navy adopted rules for proper observance at their facilities.
The crowd attending the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery was approximately the same size as those that attend today’s observance, about 5,000 people. Then, as now, small American flags were placed on each grave — a tradition followed at many national cemeteries today. In recent years, the custom has grown in many families to decorate the graves of all departed loved ones.
By 1890 each Northern state had made Decoration Day an official holiday. Not so for the South, where states continued to honor their dead on separate days until after the first World War.
The May 30 date held for decades. But in 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees. The change took place in 1971. The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday.
Memorial Day timeline
Women from Pennsylvania place flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers after the Battle of Gettysburg.
Waterloo, New York, begins hosting an annual community service in remembrance of soldiers whose lives were lost.
Major General John A. Logan issues General Order No.11, making the day official.
The organization American Veterans (AMVETS) holds a virtual motorcycle rally in honor of Memorial Day.
Traditions of the Day
Many Americans observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings, and participating in parades. It’s the three-day weekend that kicks off the summer season and the time for hanging at the beach and lakes, and barbecuing with friends and family. But Memorial Day is also the most solemn American holiday — a day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice while defending their nation.
Towns and cities across the country host grand Memorial Day parades every year, often featuring senior veterans and military personnel. Some of the biggest parades take place in New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. Cemeteries and memorials are also visited by Americans, with some citizens wearing or holding red poppies to symbolize those who have fallen in war. This tradition has been around since World War I. Weekend trips and parties are also arranged to balance out the somberness of the day and welcome the summer.
By the Numbers
620,000 – the number of soldiers who died on both sides of the Civil War.
1868 – the year when President James Garfield delivered a very long speech on Memorial Day.
2500 – the number of motorcyclists who participated in the first Rolling Thunder rally.
$1.5 billion – the number of dollars typically spent on meat and seafood in preparation for Memorial Day weekend.
60% – the percentage of American households who attend or host a barbecue on this day.
1.5 million – the number of people who watch the National Memorial Day Parade.
900,000 – the number of people who gathered for the Rolling Thunder Memorial Day motorcycle rally in 2019.
260,000 – the number of graves at Arlington National Cemetery adorned with flags in 2019.
45 million – the number of men and women who have served in a time of war for the U.S.
3 P.M. – the time of day when a moment of silence is observed by Americans throughout the country on this day.
Memorial Day FAQs
When is Memorial Day?
The final Monday of May each year.
What is the National Moment of Remembrance?
In 2000 President Clinton signed a law requiring all Americans to observe a moment of remembrance at exactly 3pm local time each Memorial Day.
Should flags be flown at half-mast?
Yes, until noon.
Will there be a lot of traffic on Memorial Day?
That depends. Do you consider 32 million automobile travelers each year “a lot?”
What’s the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day?
Although many people celebrate all veterans on both holidays, Veterans Day is distinct from Memorial Day in that it specifically celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans, while Memorial Day is meant to honor those who died while serving. That said, it is never inappropriate to thank a veteran for his or her service, regardless of what day it is.
What makes Memorial Day a federal holiday?
A federal holiday is one that has been designated as such by the United States Congress. On these days, all non-essential federal offices close, and their employees must be paid. Typically, many private-sector companies also give their employees a paid day off. Although this is not federally mandated the way it is for government offices.
How to Observe Memorial Day
Pay your respects
Lay flowers on the grave of a family member or friend who died while serving. If you don't personally know any fallen soldiers, visit a local cemetery anyway. After all, you would not be here if it weren't for their sacrifice.
Participate in the National Moment of Remembrance
By doing so, you'll be joining millions of Americans in national unity to honor Memorial Day for what it truly is — a day for those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Fly the flag
If you have an American flag at home, be sure to fly it at half-mast until noon, then raise it to full mast for the rest of the day. The practice of lowering and then raising the flag has been observed for over 100 years to symbolize America's persistence in the face of loss.
5 CREATIVE WAYS TO DECORATE FOR MEMORIAL DAY
Unfurl those flags
Often people store their American flags and raise them only during patriotic holidays. This is definitely one of those days.
Line your walkway with mini flags
Nothing honors our deceased veterans like dozens (or even hundreds) of flags in your front lawn and entryway.
Red, white, and blue layered cake
It’s a decoration you can eat.
Stars and Stripes windsocks
It’s festive, fun, and patriotic. Need we say more?
Even if you haven’t lost a loved one who served in the military, you can still honor the fallen with flowers at home. Red, navy, and blue dahlias combined with white rose silk flowers can make a stunning visual combination.
Why Memorial Day is Important
While the outdoor grilling, parades, and beautiful summer weather are some of our favorite perks of Memorial Day, the last Monday in May is the best time of year to quietly reflect on the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. They make us feel inspired and challenged to be better— and that's a wonderful feeling!
Summer — almost
We know, we know — summer officially begins on June 21. But in the minds of all Americans, summer actually begins on Memorial Day. That means it's totally okay to dust off the grill, fill up the pool, and unplug.
Since Memorial Day is a federal holiday with a built-in three-day weekend, we have an extra day to catch up on quality time with family members. For those of us with relatives who died while serving in the military, Memorial Day is sacred.
Memorial Day dates
How to Say Memorial Day in Other Languages
|Spanish (Spanish)||Día de los Caídos|
|Swahili||Siku ya Kumbukumbu|
|Italian||Giorno della Memoria|