Things You May Not Know About Memorial Day: History, Facts, & Traditions

Memorial Day may bring family barbecues to mind for many of us, but it has a much richer history and significance than picnics or grills can offer.

The holiday is a sacred day for our country, and it holds particular meaning for many of our fellow Americans who have lost loved ones. But even if you don’t have someone to remember, we’re all affected by the soldiers who have sacrificed their lives for our country. Memorial Day is a time for all of us to take a step back and honor these lives through remembrance.

Read below to learn more about where the holiday comes from, some interesting Memorial Day facts, and traditions you may want to start in your family this year. Feel free to leave a comment below with any Memorial Day information you think should be included!

The History of Memorial Day

The Beginnings

After the Civil War ended in 1865, many Americans visited soldiers’ graves to respectfully decorate them, but there wasn’t a nationwide observance.

However, in 1968, General John A. Logan, Civil War veteran and commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, declared that May 30th should be “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.”

That same month, a ceremony was held at Arlington National Cemetery where General James Garfield gave a speech about the holiday’s significance and around 5,000 people helped decorate all 20,000 graves of fallen Civil War soldiers.

Though other Civil War remembrances had been previously observed, this ceremony for “Decoration Day” marked the first time Memorial Day was celebrated.

Becoming What It Is Today

Originally, Memorial Day specifically honored those who had died fighting for the Union and Confederacy in the Civil War, but after WWI, American soldiers who had died in any war were recognized.

New York was the first state to officially recognize Memorial Day in 1873. And because Waterloo, New York was reportedly the first area to have an annual, town-wide service in remembrance of the soldiers, President Lyndon Johnson declared it the official birthplace of Memorial Day in 1966.

Even though the Decoration/Memorial Day tradition had already been in place for a century, Memorial Day was not officially declared a national holiday until 1971. It is now observed on the last Monday in May.

Interesting Memorial Day Facts

Check out some little-known facts about Memorial Day below. Feel free to take these along to your Memorial Day events; you could even use them in a quiz for your loved ones!

A list of Memorial Day facts, including: -Memorial Day is specifically a time to honor those who have died while fighting for our country, while Veterans Day honors all veterans.   -The earliest version of Memorial Day was called Decoration Day, and it was celebrated on May 30th. There are two competing theories for why this date was chosen: 1) There were no specific battle anniversaries on this date, or 2) Flowers would be blooming at that time and could be placed on graves.   -Even though Memorial Day was traditionally held on May 30th, it is now held on the last Monday of May. That’s because in 1968, Congress moved three holidays—including Memorial Day—so they'd always be on Monday, creating three-day weekends.   -The idea for Memorial Day was likely adopted from Southern traditions where women would visit and decorate the graves of the Confederate fallen.   -The South refused to acknowledge Memorial Day until after World War I. Before then, Southern states honored their fallen soldiers on different days.   -Some Southern states still have specific dates to honor fallen Confederate soldiers.   -Multiple places in the US have claimed to have the longest-running or oldest Memorial Day parades, including: Brooklyn, New York; Doylestown, Pennsylvania; and Rochester, Wisconsin.   -The tradition of wearing a red poppy was inspired by the poem "In Flanders Fields," written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae in 1915. After reading the poem, American teacher Moina Michaels vowed to always wear a red poppy and wrote her own poem in response, called "We Shall Keep the Faith." She began the tradition of wearing sewn poppies in remembrance of those who died in Flanders Fields, making them for soldiers and becoming known as "The Poppy Lady."

Meaningful Traditions You Can Start for Memorial Day 2019

Since Memorial Day is a national holiday, most schools and many workplaces have a three-day weekend for their students and employees. For thousands of families, it’s a chance to usher in the summer season by spending time together—or go to a mattress sale or another shopping event.

While scoring a great deal might sound fun, it’s not what Memorial Day is about. To make sure our country’s heroes and the sacrifices they’ve made are not forgotten, we encourage you to include at least one or more of the following traditions that honor our fallen soldiers:

Visit a Veterans’ Cemetery or the Grave of a Veteran – Consider volunteering to help beautify the area by clearing away weeds, stray leaves, or dirt. You can also bring flowers, flags, or other significant items to decorate the grave of a fallen soldier. In our infographic below, for example, we explain the meaning of different coins you could leave at the grave to mark your visit.

Wear a Red Poppy – To honor those who have died, many wear a red poppy on their clothing. This tradition was started in 1915 by Moina Michael, who wrote: “We cherish too, the Poppy red / That grows on fields where valor led, / It seems to signal to the skies / That blood of heroes never dies.”

Pause for a Moment of Silence – In 2000, a congressional resolution officially designated 3PM local time on Memorial Day as a National Moment of Remembrance. Join the country in taking a moment to respect our fallen servicemembers.

Involve Veterans in Your Observances – Many veterans have experienced the loss of a fellow soldier, so there may be no better way to honor the fallen than to invite a veteran to your Memorial Day observances or events. You could even ask them if they’d like to say a few words at your gathering—as long as you ask them ahead of time.

These are just a few ways you can honor those who have died serving our nation on Memorial Day. For more tips, look at the infographic above or visit our page on different ways to observe Memorial Day.

Whether you have a classic tradition like wearing a red poppy or you decide to donate to or volunteer with a veteran organization, we’d love to hear about how you observe this Memorial Day.

Memorial Day Events Worth Experiencing

Another way for you and your loved ones to honor Memorial Day is to attend one of many events held across the country. Here are just a few:

National Memorial Day Concert – On the eve of Memorial Day, this free concert is held outside the White House and broadcasted to honor military servicemembers. It is one of PBS’ highest-rated programs, with a lineup including performers and groups like Charles Esten, Leona Lewis, the Soldiers’ Chorus, and the National Symphony Orchestra.

Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Rally – The Sunday before Memorial Day, hundreds of thousands of bikers ride through Washington, DC in honor of Vietnam War POWs and MIAs.

National Memorial Day Parade – The American Veterans Center presents this parade every year in Washington, DC to honor the members of our military who have served throughout all of US history. You can stream the parade live on either YouTube or Military.com.

National Memorial Day Choral Festival – This annual concert includes a large choir that performs with the United States Air Force Orchestra.

These are a few of the big events happening in the country. For more ideas, visit our post on must-see Memorial Day events.

If you’d like something more local, remember that most cities offer smaller Memorial Day events. Research what’s happening in your area to find something more intimate near your community.

Sharing the True Meaning of Memorial Day

The infographic below includes some information we hope you find compelling about this special holiday. Please feel free to share it with your loved ones to spread the true meaning of Memorial Day:

A Memorial Day infographic with statistics, history, interesting facts, and traditions all related to the holiday.

How Will You Remember?

In 1868, General Logan said, “Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”

This Memorial Day, may we choose above all else to honor fallen US troops. How will you choose to remember the “cost of a free and undivided republic” this year?

Tell us about your plans by commenting below or visiting one of our social media accounts and leaving a comment on our Memorial Day post there.

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