Why Do We Celebrate Memorial Day?
The phrase Memorial Day or Memorial Day Weekend tends to bring thoughts of cookouts, grilled hotdogs, and sunny weather to the minds of most Americans. And with good reason. Often regarded as the semi-official start of summer, this holiday makes for an enjoyable long weekend to savor the start of the warm season from coast to coast.
Many people are also keenly aware of the deeper, more emotional basis for the holiday: the recognition and remembrance of the men and women of the military who perished in the defense of our nation and its ideals.
As our Armed Forces continue to fight on the many fronts of the ongoing War on Terror, from Iraq and Afghanistan to North Africa and beyond, that roll of honor continues to grow. So it’s as important today as ever to understand just why America has such a holiday and what it really means.
There is no right or wrong way to celebrate Memorial Day weekend, for each person has their own way of memorializing and honoring the fallen soldiers of the past. What is most important is to think about which choice feels right for you.
Why Do We Celebrate Memorial Day?
In the opinion of many in the military community, that heading itself is a loaded question. It might be more correct to say that Memorial Day is “observed” or “honored,” as the word “celebrate” might undermine the gravity of the occasion in the eyes of some. But whatever the verb you find most fitting, the reason behind this day remains the same.
Over the centuries of our country’s existence, millions of brave citizens donned uniforms and left home to serve.
Many of them did not return.
It is in their memory that we, as a nation, dedicate this day specifically to those gallant heroes.
History of Memorial Day
It may come as a surprise that Memorial Day, in its current form, has only existed in the United States since 1968. On June 28th of that year Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, Memorial Day among them, from specific days of the month to set Mondays. That way, people and businesses could more easily observe and enjoy them. But the tradition of spending a day honoring those who gave their lives in the service of our country started over a century before.
It began with the bloodiest conflict in our nation’s history: the one that divided it. It may have begun in the North, where so many young men were sent home to be buried after falling in combat hundreds and thousands of miles from home. It may have begun in the South, where so many of the war’s battlefields scarred the landscape. No one knows for certain where, but the holiday we know as Memorial Day has its roots in the Civil War.
The First Memorial Day
Individual towns, cities, and states across the country selecting days to decorate the graves of their local may go as far back as 1861. Many towns all over America claim to be the location of the first Memorial Day as it started in piecemeal fashion in several places. The practice became more common as the war continued and thousands upon thousands of young men perished in the bloody conflict. Those at home began to regularly visit and decorate the graves of relatives and loved ones they lost.
The concept of a national event coalesced in the aftermath of the war’s end on April 9th, 1865 and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln a few days later. Mass observances of celebration and mourning went hand in hand as the horrible end of the war coincided with the murder of the Great Emancipator who led the nation through its darkest days. There were also a variety of Memorial Day type occasions by the former Confederate states honoring their dead as early as 1866.
National Decoration Day
The first official call for a nationally acknowledged day came on May 5th, 1868 from John A. Logan, then a Congressman (later a Senator) from Illinois and former Major General in the US Army. Logan, also head of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a massive organization of Union veterans, proposed that a National Decoration Day occur on the 30th. The reason for him picking that day is unclear, though the two most common explanations are that it was not the anniversary of any specific battle or because it was a day the flowers would usually be in full bloom across the country.
Regardless, the date was adopted as Decoration Day after the decorations traditionally placed on the graves of war dead to honor their sacrifice. Ohio Congressman and former Major General in the Union Army James A. Garfield, who would later become president, gave a speech at Arlington National Cemetery. Thousands of people participated, laying decorations on 20,000 graves of Americans from both sides buried there.
As the decades went on, the holiday grew in importance and expanded to honor all those who died in the uniform of the US Armed Forces. Its alternate name, Memorial Day, became more and more widely used during the twentieth century and finally became its official designation in 1967. With the passage of the aforementioned Uniform Monday Holiday Act and the holiday’s move from the 30th to the last Monday in May, Memorial Day became what we know it as today.
National Moment of Remembrance
While the entirety of Memorial Day is dedicated to the military fallen, there is also a specific time of day designated as the moment to truly, actively reflect on those sacrifices. In December of 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act, which selected 3:00pm as the start of a full minute devoted to reflection on the meaning of Memorial Day.
The time was selected to ensure that, no matter how people are enjoying or spending their Monday off, they don’t forget the day’s true meaning. All across America, baseball games stop and trains blow their whistles for a full minute in salute to our lost and lamented soldiers, sailors, airmen, coast guardsmen, and marines. For most of us across the nation, these sixty seconds of 3 o’clock are time to reflect on the incomprehensible sacrifices of the deceased.
For many, however, this moment takes on added significance and it’s worth remembering them as well. For the men, women, and children of Gold Star families, this moment (and Memorial Day as a whole, of course) is the time every year where they cannot help but turn their thoughts to the loved ones who didn’t come home. For them it is a day of grief that requires reflection and understanding. And the rest of us would do well to spare thoughts for those the memorialized left behind. And for any Gold Star children, parents, or spouses reading this, we offer you are sincere yet wholly inadequate sympathy and affection.
How We Honor Memorial Day in America
Why do we celebrate memorial day in the US?
There are many traditions, both local and national, that are part of modern Memorial Day commemorations in addition to the National Moment of Remembrance. From moments of silence to jubilant parades, from the laying of wreaths at monuments to grand speeches from our military and civic leaders. Many people wear or display remembrance poppies, an originally British tradition that began after WWI inspired by the poem “In Flanders Field.” Perhaps the most significant and meaningful tradition is the procedure governing how the US flag must be raised.
Most people know that the lowering of the national standard to half-mast is a symbol of mourning. But on Memorial Day, the flag is not simply raised halfway and left there. It’s first raised to the top of the pole, then lowered to half-mast in honor of the fallen. But only until noon. Then, it’s re-raised to the top where it remains, a symbol of hope and the fact that the nation and ideals the dead gave their lives for will continue. That’s where the aforementioned hotdogs and BBQs fit into this solemn day, in our opinion. It’s the hopeful coda to this day of honor.
This most sacred of military holidays is an occasion of complex emotions, of somber recollections and fond memories for those who have lost a loved one, relative, or comrade in defense of the United States. Some see it as a day to celebrate and honor the sacrifice of so many by enjoying the fruits of living in a country they died to keep free. Others prefer to observe it with solemn reflection so we never forget the terrible price many men and women paid on behalf of the American ideals. Several companies are showing their recognition of this day by offering amazing deals and discounts. You can find the top brands in our latest blog, Memorial Day Weekend Military Deals: 20 Brands You Can’t Miss.
However you choose to commemorate Memorial Day, be it with mournful reflection, hotdogs and happiness, or a mix of both, we ask that you do so to honor the memory of those who, in the words of President Abraham Lincoln, never forget those who “gave the last full measure of devotion.”
Blog Updated: March 7, 2022