Occasions 365

Memorial Day

Observing a day of remembrance

Memorial Day weekend is regarded as the unofficial beginning of summer and it starts off a string of military-themed summer holidays, including D-Day, Flag Day, and of course, the 4th of July. Memorial Day is often celebrated with a picnic. The Indianapolis 500 has coincided with this day since 1911, and parades are another popular Memorial Day activity. But what about Memorial Day's connection with war?

Memorial Day History

Memorial Day began in 1865 when liberated slaves gathered at a Charleston race track that was formerly a Confederate prison camp, retrieved Union soldiers from a mass grave and interred them in single graves. They built a fence and an entryway, and called it a Union graveyard.

On May 30, 1868, the former slaves returned with flowers to decorate the graves, after which they paraded with local Union soldiers, sang patriotic hymns and had a picnic. This was the first celebration of Decoration Day, which later became Memorial Day.

After World War I, Decoration Day was broadened to include "American casualties of any war or military action." After World War II, the name "Memorial Day" began to replace "Decoration Day," becoming the holiday's official name in 1967. In 1971, Memorial Day was changed from May 30 to the last Monday in May, creating the three-day Memorial Day weekend.

Memorial Day Observances

Memorial Day is observed by hanging the American flag at half-mast from dawn until noon, then raising it to the top of the staff. U.S. residents observe a moment of silence at 3:00 p.m. in remembrance of American soldiers who died in service. Many people visit cemeteries or monuments, leaving red, white and blue floral tributes at soldiers' graves.

On the Thursday before Memorial Day, 1,200 soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry place American flags on over 260,000 graves in Arlington National Cemetery. Many Memorial Day celebrations also include speeches, from which many popular Memorial Day quotes and Memorial Day poems have arisen.

Memorial Day Trivia

Some interesting Memorial Day–related facts include:

  • "Taps" was a poem written by Civil War Major General Daniel Butterfield and set to music. It remains a classic hymn to dead soldiers.
  • Poppies became the official Memorial Day flower after a World War I poem by Canadian military physician Lt. Col. John McCrae. Called "In Flanders Fields," the poem describes poppies growing abundantly over some of the worst battlefields in Flanders. Poppies continue to symbolize the blood shed by U.S. soldiers who died at war.
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