Memorial Day is an American holiday, observed on the last Monday of May, for honouring and mourning the men and women who died while serving in the US military.
Memorial Day 2020 occurs on Monday 25 May.
Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official US holiday in 1971. The precise history of Memorial Day remains complex and unclear however. The US Department of Veterans’ Affairs recognises that approximately 25 places claim to have originated the holiday. There is even a Centre for Memorial Day Research at Columbus State University!
Memorial Day used to be called Decoration Day for the very simple reason that the ancient custom of decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers (or medals for some) became one of the traditions respected on that day. In fact, in the US, soldiers’ graves were decorated even before and during the Civil War.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, it had claimed more lives than any other conflict in US history and therefore required the establishment of the first national cemeteries. “By the late 1860s, Americans in various towns and cities had begun holding springtime tributes, decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers,” states History’s Memorial Day summary.
Some records show that one of the earliest Memorial Day commemorations was organised by a group of freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina less than a month after the end of the Civil War. Yet, in 1966 the federal government declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day.
Initially, Memorial Day, or Decoration Day at the time, was only meant to be an occasion for honouring and mourning those lost while fighting in the Civil War. But during World War I the US found itself involved in another major conflict, which is why the holiday eventually 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 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 and declared Memorial Day a national holiday.
Americans 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 and is also respected in the UK.
Each year, cities across the US host Memorial Day parades often incorporating military personnel and members of veterans’ organisations. Some of the largest parades take place in New York, Washington, D.C. and Chicago. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, big parades will not take place but New York just announced that it will allow small ceremonies and vehicle parades.
Many people also celebrate Memorial Day weekend by throwing parties and barbecues during the three day long weekend as the last Monday of May also represents the unofficial start of summer in the US while Labor Day marks the unofficial start of Autumn on the first Monday of September.
Two other days celebrate those who have served or are currently serving in the US military. The first one is Veterans Day, which honours those who have served in the US Armed Forces. The second one is Armed Forces Day, an unofficial US holiday for honouring those currently serving in the armed forces.
This Monday for Memorial Day 2020, don’t forget about the day’s national moment of remembrance which takes place at 3 p.m. local time.