For many people, Memorial Day is a day to remember fallen veterans and enjoy the beginning of summer with a cook-out, trip, or parade. But there is so much more to it.
Check out the history of Memorial Day and how it came to be below. Farther down are 11 ways to celebrate, which include several amazing memorial products available for purchase.
What Is Memorial Day - A Quick History Lesson
Memorial Day, formerly known as Decoration Day, is a federal holiday observed on the last Monday of May to commemorate all the people who died while serving in the U.S. military.
It was started during the Civil War to inspire the people in the south. The Civil War, which ended in the spring of 1865, claimed more lives than any conflict in U.S. history and so the country’s first national cemeteries had to be created, according to history.com. By the late 1860s, many Americans had started holding springtime tributes to these countless fallen soldiers, decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers. So appropriately the name Decoration Day was coined. Decoration Day was a time to honor the soldier's effort and choice to defend their loved ones.
According to the United States Library of Congress, "Southern women decorated the graves of soldiers even before the Civil War’s end. By 1865, Mississippi, Virginia, and South Carolina all had precedents for Memorial Day." These earlier southern celebrations were simple, somber occasions to honor the dead and tend to the local cemeteries.
The very first celebration of Decoration Day isn’t very clear, as decorating graves is an ancient tradition. But according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper article in 1906, the first Civil War soldier’s grave to ever be decorated was John Quincy Marr’s grave on June 3, 1861, in Warrenton, Virginia. He died on June 1, 1861, during a skirmish at the Battle of Fairfax Courthouse in Virginia. His funeral was held on June 3, 1861, during which they decorated his grave. There are many other grave decoration precedents in the following years, which you can read here.
In 1966, former President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo (New York) to be the official birthplace of Decoration Day.
On May 5, 1868, an organization of Union army veterans, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), established Decoration Day as the time for the nation to decorate the graves of the fallen war heroes with flowers.
General John A. Logan, organization leader, proclaimed, “The 30th of May, 1868, is 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.”
The date of Decoration Day was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle. The GAR added that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30 each year because the timing would permit flowers to be in bloom all over the country, perfect for decorating the graves with.
During this first Decoration Day, the then-congressman James Garfield spoke at Arlington National Cemetery to 5,000 participants who decorated the graves of 20,000 Civil War soldiers buried there. “We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens,” he said solemnly, his strong voice caring across the cold cemetary. “For love of country, they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”
By the start of the 20th century, ceremonies were being held on May 30 across the country. After World War I, the holiday was expanded to honor all American war fatalities.
Congress recognized Decoration Day as a federal holiday in 1938. The name “Memorial Day” became more commonplace after World War II. But the federal government didn’t officially adopt that name until 1967.
In 1968, the Uniform Holidays Bill was passed and changed it from taking place on May 30, to the last Monday in May.
How Do You Want To Celebrate Memorial Day?
With so many lives sacrificed for our freedoms, it’s not surprising there are many tributes and ways people honor their fallen heroes today.
Ways You Can Celebrate The Day:
- Attend A Memorial Day Ceremony - Many towns have parades/BBQs/ceremonies on Memorial Day, concluding with a memorial service. Check with your local Chamber of Commerce to find out what’s going on in your town.
- Listen To A Memorial Day Concert - Many concerts take place on Memorial Day. One well-known concert is the National Memorial Day Concert. You can tune into the live televised event on PBS on May 30 at 8 p.m. EST.
- Decorate With Flags - Many families put up the flag and memorial decorations around the house and yard to commemorate their fallen brethren. Don’t have memorial decorations? Check out these flag signs or this three-piece flag canvas.
- Buy A Poppy - As Memorial Day approaches, members of the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) accept donations for poppies. The donations help maintain state and national rehabilitation and service programs for veterans. Disabled and needy veterans in VA hospitals have been assembling Buddy Poppies since 1924. The association with poppy’s importance to Memorial Day derives from John McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders Fields.”
- Thank A Veteran - If you know any veterans, you can thank them by gifting them a monetary donation, offering a helping hand with errands, or buying them a gift. Here are several customizable gift ideas that say thank you in a meaningful way: a memorial votive candle holder, memorial wall shadow box, those we love memorial wall cross, memorial wall plaque, memorial ornaments, or other memorial items.
- If you don’t know a veteran or want to do more, you can write a letter to a veteran or soldier. Check out OperationGratitude.com for more information about writing letters or sending care packages to soldiers currently deployed.
- Grave Decoration - Decorate and clean a veteran’s grave or cemetery you know of.
- Volunteer In Your Community - Maybe a veteran you know needs help mowing his lawn, an elderly neighbor needs a hand, or a soup kitchen needs volunteers. However you decide to help those around you is a great way to pay it forward in a positive way that echoes the spirit of Memorial Day. Decide to do something selfless, just as the many men and women we celebrate on Memorial Day did for you. For more inspiration on how you can volunteer or get involved with your local community, check out the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation’s resources.
- Participate In The National Moment Of Remembrance - The National Moment of Remembrance asks everyone to pause for one minute of silence in an act of national unity at 3 p.m. local time. This was started to ensure Memorial Day is the sacred and noble holiday it is intended to be.
- Plan A Family BBQ - Celebrate Memorial Day and get everyone to remember our fallen heroes and participate in the National Moment of Remembrance. This customizable BBQ utensils gift set would be a great gift for yourself or the chef of the event. If many people are coming over to your house or you’d like to bring a gift to the party host, check out these customizable coasters, cutting boards, and lazy susans.
- Take A Virtual Tour Of The Capital - If you can’t travel to Washington, D.C. to see its museums and galleries spotlighting the rich history of our nation, you can take a virtual tour. You and your family can explore the National Geographic Museum, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and much more.
- Take A Memorial Day Trip - You can go on a hike, take a trip to a war museum, or beach vacation. Whatever you do, remember those who fought for the freedoms you enjoy now.