Memorial Day is an American holiday, observed on the last Monday of May, honoring the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. Memorial Day 2021 will occur on Monday, May 31.
Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971. Many Americans observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings and participating in parades. Unofficially, it marks the beginning of the summer season.
History of Memorial Day
Memorial Day, as Decoration Day gradually came to be known, originally honored only those lost while fighting in the Civil War. But during World War I the United States found itself embroiled in another major conflict, and the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars, including World War II, The Vietnam War, The Korean War, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For decades, Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30, the date Logan had selected for the first Decoration Day. 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 went into effect in 1971. The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday.
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.
What makes Memorial Day a federal holiday?
A federal holiday is one that has been designated as such by the United States Congress.
How to observe Memorial Day?
1) 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.
2) 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. Memorial Day is a day of “National Mourning.”
3) National Moment of Remembrance
By participating in a “National Moment of Remembrance” at 3:00 PM local time, to pause and think upon the meaning of the day and for taps to be played where possible.
Memorial Day Traditions
Cities and towns across the United States host Memorial Day parades each year, often incorporating military personnel and members of veterans’ organizations. Some of the largest parades take place in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C.
Americans also observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries and memorials. Some people wear a red poppy in remembrance of those fallen in war—a tradition that began with a World War I poem. Many people take weekend trips or throw parties and barbecues on the holiday, perhaps because Memorial Day weekend—the long weekend comprising the Saturday and Sunday before Memorial Day and Memorial Day itself—unofficially marks the beginning of summer.