Memorial Day: What is it, and how is it celebrated?

Memorial Day is a quintessential American holiday often associated with the start of summer, family gatherings, barbecues and parades— but this holiday has an important historical significance as well.

Sometimes referred to as the Day of the Fallen, this holiday is celebrated across the United States to honor those who have died in American wars. Keep reading to learn more about this important American tradition, and its origins.

What is Memorial Day?

Memorial Day is a holiday celebrated on the last Monday in May. Its main purpose is to honor the fallen men and women who fought for our country. Since the holiday always falls on a Monday, the exact date changes every year. For example, in 2022, Memorial Day will be celebrated on May 30.  

Originally called Decoration Day, Memorial Day began during the years following the Civil War, and it became a federal holiday in 1971. Many celebrate the Day of the Fallen by visiting cemeteries or monuments, hosting barbecues, and going to parades. This holiday marks the unofficial beginning of the summer. 

Memorial Day Origins

Fought between 1861 and 1865, the Civil War took more lives than any other conflict in U.S. history. In fact, the war killed so many people that it gave rise to the first cemeteries in the country. At the end of the 1860s, different villages and cities began to pay tribute to the countless soldiers who lost their lives by placing flowers on their tombs and reciting prayers.  

When is it Celebrated?

General John Alexander Logan announced the first official Memorial Day in 1868. He declared that the day would be celebrated on May 30 of every year. In 1971, Congress decreed that the Day of the Fallen would be observed on the last Monday in May in order to ensure that the day would always be a holiday and a long weekend. 

Since then, Memorial Day has become one of the most popular holidays in the country because it’s a great way to kick off the summer with a weekend trip. 

How is Memorial Day Celebrated in the U.S.?

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Memorial Day traditions and celebrations have evolved over time. In the beginning, the holiday was strictly dedicated to honoring those who died while serving in the military. Over the years, this tradition became less prominent, and a lot of people view it as a day to mark the start of summer or take a well-deserved break. Some of the most common Memorial Day traditions include:

In the past

Decorating the tombs of fallen soldiers is the most long-standing Memorial Day tradition. In fact, to declare May 30th as the first Day of the Fallen, General John Logan declared in 1868 that the day would be dedicated “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.” It’s for this reason that Memorial Day was originally referred to as Decoration Day. 

In the present

Memorial Day celebrations have a lot more variety now. There are thousands of events across the country that range from solemn tributes to lighthearted celebrations. Some celebrations are official and run by the government while others are private. Below is a list of the most common celebrations:  

  • The President's speech. It’s tradition that on Memorial Day the President give a speech to pay tribute to the people who died while fighting for their country. This speech is usually given at the National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. A wreath of flowers is laid on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a monument dedicated to all who lost their lives in combat and can’t be identified. You can listen to a recording of President Biden’s speech from 2021 here.
  • Memorial Day parades: A lot of cities have parades honoring the fallen soldiers. The biggest parades take place in New York and Chicago, but there are plenty of parades in smaller towns as well. Cities like El Paso, Texas and Livingston, New Jersey, also host  these types of celebrations
  • Cemetery and monument visits: A lot of families take Memorial Day to visit a family member's grave or a monument dedicated to the fallen soldiers. Just like in the 19th century, many decorate graves of their loved ones who died in combat to honor their memory. 
  • Weekend trips: Since Memorial Day is a federal holiday, a lot of people take advantage of the long weekend and go on weekend trips to other parts of the country to visit friends and family or to go on a brief vacation. 
  • Barbecues: People who choose not to go on vacation sometimes organize events at home. Barbecues are the most common way to celebrate, especially since Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of the summer. 
  • Wear a poppy: Some who celebrate Memorial Day wear a poppy on their lapel or hat. This symbol is used around the world, for example during Remembrance Day, which is celebrated on December 11th and marks the day that the Armistice was signed, ending the First World War. This is a common tribute in Commonwealth Countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. The use of the poppy comes from John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields. 

Where Was The First Memorial Day Held?

While a lot of cities claim to be the first city to celebrate Memorial Day, the city of Waterloo, New York is the birthplace of this holiday. During the 19th century, a lot of events were held to honor the fallen soldiers lost during the Civil War. The first official city-wide celebration was held on May 5, 1866 in Waterloo.

Is Memorial Day a Holiday?

Memorial Day is one of eleven federally-recognized holidays throughout the year. In other words, most government offices and banks are closed on this day. Though it isn’t required by law, some private businesses also close on this day. Other federally-recognized holidays include: 

  • New Year’s Day (January 1st)
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (the third Monday in January)
  • President’s Day (the third Monday in February)
  • Juneteenth (June 19th)
  • Independence Day (July 4th)
  • Labor Day (the first Monday in September)
  • Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples’ Day (the second Monday in October)
  • Veteran’s Day (November 11) 
  • Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday in November)
  • Christmas (December 25).

Celebrate Memorial Day with SABEResPODER!

The Day of the Fallen is a solemn holiday. Everyone chooses how to celebrate or commemorate this day in their own way.

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