What Exactly is Memorial Day?

What Exactly is Memorial Day

When thinking about Memorial Day, the first thing that comes to mind for many is family cookouts or a day at the beach. For many Americans, Memorial Day symbolizes the unofficial start of summer.

But Memorial Day is much more than that. The federal holiday, which is annually celebrated on the last Monday of May, exists to honor American soldiers who have died in battle.

The history of Memorial Day goes back to the Civil War. Originally called “Decoration Day,” the holiday was first celebrated in Northern states on May 30, 1868, to pay tribute to fallen Union soldiers. In the South, the former Confederate states celebrated their own Memorial Day and, according to many historians, began the tradition before Northerners.

Empire Resume will delve into the history of Memorial Day, including how it adapted over the years and ways you can celebrate to honor fallen soldiers of the U.S. armed forces.

History of Memorial Day

What Exactly is Memorial Day

The origins of Memorial Day are complex, but most historians trace the founding to 1868, which was three years after the end of the Civil War. In 1868, General John A. Logan issued a proclamation for a national “Decoration Day” to honor fallen soldiers from the Civil War.

Northern states quickly adopted the new holiday, and, in 1868, 27 states celebrated with memorial events held in 183 cemeteries. Decoration Day was celebrated on May 30 each year, and the date was picked because it was the optimal time for flowers to bloom in the North.

However, historians note that in the South, the former Confederate states developed their own separate Memorial Day tradition that began earlier than the one in the North. Southern women had already been decorating fallen soldiers’ graves with flowers during the Civil War, and by 1865, three Southern states had precedents for Memorial Day.

In 1868, some Southern politicians and public figures began adding the word “Confederate” before Decoration Day, and they claimed the Northerners had stolen the idea of the holiday. The first official Confederate Memorial Day was held in 1874 in Georgia. By 1916, ten Southern states celebrated their own version of the holiday on June 3, which was the birthday of the former Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, tensions between North and South still ran high, so it’s interesting to note how Memorial Day developed. By 1890, every Northern state had marked off May 30 as the official Decoration Day, but Southern states continued to celebrate separately.

After World War I, Memorial Day (or Decoration Day) became a national holiday to celebrate all fallen American soldiers from every war – not just the Civil War. Memorial Day was celebrated on May 30 for decades until 1971, when the federal government established the holiday as the last Monday of May every year to create a three-day weekend for federal workers. The feds also declared Memorial Day a national holiday with the same law.

Difference between Memorial & Veterans Day

What Exactly is Memorial Day

Many Americans confuse Memorial and Veteran’ Day. Both of these holidays honor military members, but there are distinct differences between the two, other than their histories and the days they’re celebrated.

Memorial Day, as we’ve shown, is a more somber holiday and a day of remembrance. The purpose of Memorial Day is to honor every American servicemember who has died while protecting our freedoms. Therefore, it can be inappropriate at times to cheerfully wish someone a “Happy Memorial Day,” especially if they have family members who have died in service.

Veterans Day is celebrated annually on November 11. The holiday is meant to honor all U.S. military members who have served in the past, present, and future. You can celebrate these two holidays by honoring military members in much the same way. Just remember that Memorial Day is more bittersweet for some military families and is a day of remembrance.

Memorial Day Traditions

What Exactly is Memorial Day

Many Americans, especially those with little exposure to the military, may not be aware there are several traditions observed on Memorial Day.

Some Americans, for example, observe a moment of silence at 3 p.m. every Memorial Day. Congress asked Americans to do this when it passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act in 2000.

There’s also a specific way to fly American flags on Memorial Day. On Memorial Day, many people raise flags full staff and then lower them to half-staff until noon. At noontime, the flag is then raised full staff for the remainder of the day.

Other notable traditions include:

  • The sitting U.S. president traditionally gives a speech on Memorial Day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
  • During the 3 p.m. moment of remembrance, conductors of Amtrak trains sound one long whistle to remember fallen soldiers.
  • Many veterans and military families visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., over Memorial Day weekend.
  • The red poppy flower has become a symbol of Memorial Day. The poppy tradition began after World War I when a Canadian general mentioned the flower in his war poem, “In Flanders Fields.” The poppy is a symbol of remembrance in other countries, as well.

The True Meaning of Memorial Day

What Exactly is Memorial Day

Now that you know more about Memorial Day, think about ways to honor fallen soldiers on this day of remembrance. Family cookouts, beach trips, and daydreaming about the summer ahead are great, but remember that Memorial Day is really about reflecting on U.S. soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Some ways to honor veterans on Memorial Day include:

  • Attend a parade or event. Many towns have parades or events that include veterans and memorial services.
  • Decorate your home with flags. It’s a long-standing tradition to decorate veterans’ cemeteries with flags, but you can also decorate your home with small flags. If you have an American flag waving at your home, consider observing the tradition of flying it at half-staff until noon.
  • Say “thank you” to a veteran. Memorial Day is about fallen soldiers, but you can also thank those still among us who have served. If you don’t know any veterans, make a social media post thanking them. Or check out organizations where you can write letters of gratitude to veterans.

From its start around the time of the Civil War, Memorial Day has become a great American tradition. Though some people only think of it as a day for hamburgers, hot dogs, and summer fun, servicemembers and their families know its significance as a day of solemn remembrance.

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What Exactly is Memorial Day

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Dr. Phillip Gold is President/CEO of Empire Resume and has vast experience writing resumes for both professionals and service-members transitioning from the military into civilian roles. He served as a Captain in the U.S. Air Force responsible for leading nuclear missile security. Phillip is a Certified Professional Resume Writer and holds a BA in Communications from The Ohio State University, an MS in Instructional Technology, an MBA in Finance, and a PhD in Finance.  

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