Each year when Memorial Day approaches, American citizens get some mixed messages about what the holiday is really about. For many people, Memorial Day is a day off from school or work where they can engage in a BBQ or spend their first day at the beach of the year. But that’s not really what Memorial Day was created for. So, why do we celebrate Memorial Day? And how can we celebrate it with the origin in mind?
Why Do We Celebrate Memorial Day?
Originally known as Decoration Day, the United States has been observing Memorial Day since the years following the Civil War. By the late 1860s, Americans had begun holding tributes for the countless fallen soldiers of the war. The Civil War claimed more American lives than any conflict in U.S. history and led to the creation of the first national cemeteries. Many Americans began visiting the cemeteries during this unofficial holiday to decorate graves with flowers and recite prayers.
Though the holiday was originally meant to honor the fallen soldiers of the Civil War, it has since grown to commemorate the lives of all military personnel lost in any war. Though the first official Decoration Day was on May 30, 1868, it’s believed that the traditions date back earlier, just on different days. However, once Decoration Day began, many Northern states adopted the custom. By 1890, each Northern state had made it an official holiday. However, Southern states honored the dead on separate days.
The day eventually became known as Memorial Day and continued to be honored on May 30. But in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. The act declared Memorial Day a federal holiday, but it changed the date to the last Monday in May to establish a three-day holiday weekend for federal workers.
While many people today consider Memorial Day to be the unofficial start of summer and a day filled with family get-togethers in the newly-emerged summer sun, it’s important to remember it’s more of a day for commemoration than celebration.
How Can You Honor a Fallen Soldier on Memorial Day
1. Fly flags that honor soldiers.
Many Americans choose to fly the American flag on Memorial Day as a symbol of patriotism and to honor those who have fallen. However, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are specific guidelines on how to fly it. You should fly the flag at half-staff from sunrise until noon. Then, it should be swiftly raised to the top of the staff until sunset. You can also choose to fly additional meaningful flags for the U.S. military, such as the POW/MIA flag, a reminder of the missing and imprisoned soldiers of the Vietnam War.
2. Place flowers on a veteran’s grave.
Families often visit cemeteries on Memorial Day to decorate the graves of family members who were veterans. It’s a beautiful way to say thank you to these fallen soldiers. However, if you don’t have a veteran in your own family, you can visit a veterans’ cemetery to decorate other graves. The Department of Veterans Affairs keeps a database of all the veterans' cemeteries so you can find one near you.
3. Wear red poppies.
World War I took the lives of an estimated 8.5 million soldiers. Across northern France and Flanders, or northern Belgium, clashes between the Allied and Central Powers destroyed the fields and forests, taking countless lives with them of soldiers and civilians alike. But in the spring of 1915, bright red poppies began appearing in the battle-scarred land. Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae used the poppies as inspiration for his poem, “In Flanders Fields,” which was written from the point of view of the fallen soldiers.
The poppy has since gone on to become a symbol of remembrance. It’s not just an American tradition, though. Several countries don the poppy every November 11 to commemorate the 1918 armistice. However, in the U.S., the poppy is more closely associated with Memorial Day. To wear a red poppy in the U.S. is to honor those who have sacrificed their lives in the name of their country.
4. Support a charity for fallen soldiers and their families.
A part of honoring fallen soldiers is recognizing how much they left behind in the service of their country. Those who died protecting their country had families who loved them and now may struggle through their loss. Whether you’re able to donate money or time, Memorial Day is a great day to spend time helping these families. However, it’s worth remembering that these people need help year-round, so try to look out for opportunities throughout the year to donate what you can.
5. Participate in a Memorial Day event.
Many cities and towns throughout the U.S. hold Memorial Day events, such as parades or walks. These events often raise funds for military-based charities, but they’re also an opportunity to shine a light on what Memorial Day is really about. Be on the lookout for events in your area. If you have the ability, get involved with the creation of the event to ensure that it’s befitting of Memorial Day’s history.
6. Pause for the National Moment of Remembrance.
Each year on Memorial Day, there’s a National Moment of Remembrance. Lasting just one minute at 3 p.m., Americans are asked to silently reflect upon their freedoms and the sacrifices that were made to uphold them. You may also listen to “Taps,” which is often played on local radio stations to commemorate the moment.
Memorial Day is a time to reflect and give thanks to the people who gave their lives to ensure your freedoms today. It’s a day to honor lost lives and support the loved ones those soldiers left behind. They all have sacrificed much. It’s important that we do what we can to give back.