Memorial Day, May 25, 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.
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 on April 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.
3 Memorial Day Traditions
We can all celebrate in our own special way — whether with family or the entire nation:
National Moment of Remembrance
Did you know that each Memorial Day at exactly 3pm local time, all Americans, whether alone or in a group, are asked to pause for one minute to honor those who died in service? If you’re at a public event, there’s a good chance it will be announced. But if you’re alone or at a private gathering, you might consider setting the alarm on your phone as a reminder.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, VA. Sometimes called the Tomb of the Unknowns, it is a monument dedicated to U.S. service members who died during battle, and whose bodies were not able to be identified. This is a popular tourist destination on Memorial Day for people who wish to pay their respects to our deceased heroes.
National Memorial Day Parade
Many men and women in uniform participate in the annual parade held in Washington, DC. More than a quarter million spectators will line the National Mall to support veterans, active duty military personnel, historic re-enactors, marching bands, musical performers, and celebrity supporters of our troops. It’s America’s largest Memorial Day event.
The National Memorial Day Parade takes place on Monday from 2 to 4 p.m EDT. It is traditionally preceded by musical performances and ceremonies at the reviewing stand located at the National Archives on the corner of Seventh Street NW and Constitution Avenue NW.
It will be broadcast live on local TV stations across the country as well as on the American Forces Network for members of the military serving around the world. You can also stream it live on YouTube.
5 Creative Ways to Decorate for Memorial Day
Red, white, and blue. Stars and stripes. Flags and flowers. There are so many ways to adorn your home over the Memorial Day holiday. Here are some patriotic ideas:
1. Unfurl those flags. Often times people store their American flags and raise them only during patriotic holidays. This is definitely one of those days.
2. Line your walkway with mini flags: Nothing honors our deceased veterans like dozens (or even hundreds) of flags in your front lawn and entry way.
3. Red, white, and blue layer cake. It’s a decoration you can eat.
4. Stars and Stripes windsocks. Festive, fun, and patriotic.
5. 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.
5 Memorial Day Vacation Ideas
What will you do with your long Memorial Day weekend? Whether you’re a pack-the-minivan kind of family, or looking for a big airplane getaway, here are some great ideas to consider:
1. Find the nearest beach, claim your spot, and sit there all day. It’s still early enough in the summer where the temperature could go either way. So remember layers! (Also, remember your portable grill.)
2. If you’re interested in staying true to the intent of Memorial Day, but want to avoid the massive crowds in our nation’s capital, cities all over the country honor our fallen heroes with parades, concerts, and commemorations. New Orleans, for instance, hosts a day of events, including a concert and observance of the National Moment of Silence. Of course, there are two other days that weekend. And there aren’t many better places to be with a couple of down days than The Big Easy.
3. For a relaxing weekend away from crowds, consider a bed & breakfast tucked away on a quiet mountain road. We hear that the forests north of Winterfell are beautiful this time of year.
4. Road trip! If you’ve never driven the Pacific Coast Highway, you have no idea what you’re missing. The views of California’s Highway 1 are endless, and there is no better place to feel awe-struck than seeing the mountains meet the ocean at Big Sur.
5. Camping, Glamping, or Lamping? Camping is always a favorite long weekend activity. Camping plus a few creature comforts like luxury tents has been popularized under the name “glamping.” But if you’re looking for something quirky to do this holiday weekend, we might suggest a new pastime: Lamping. It basically consists of visiting a bunch of antique stores to find odd or unusual lamps. Think of it like a treasure hunt for tchotchke nerds.
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.
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.
How to Say Memorial Day in Other Languages
|Spanish (Spanish)||Día de los Caídos|
|Swahili||Siku ya Kumbukumbu|
|Italian||Giorno della Memoria|