Memorial Day is a federal holiday celebrated on the last Monday in May each year to remember those who have died in active military service. The long weekend marks the start of the summer vacation season.
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Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day, and was first proclaimed by General John Logan on 5 May 1868 to honor the soldiers who died during the American Civil War. The beginning of General John Logan’s order begins:
“The 30th day 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. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.” – General Order No. 11
Decoration Day was observed in 17 states in 1868. Maine became the first state to declare a legal holiday for the day in 1874, followed by Massachusetts in 1881. Other northern states followed. By the end of the Great War (World War I), Memorial Day was a legal holiday in most northern states and a handful of southern states including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and North and South Carolina (though the day was marked on different dates in these states).
The holiday became popularly known as Memorial Day by the late 19th century and its scope gradually expanded to remember the deceased veterans of all the wars fought by American forces. In a newspaper article from 1899 titled “Memorial Day of the Future”, General Marcus P. Miller writes that the Memorial Day serves to remember all those soldiers, from all across the United States, who have fought and died in the Spanish war, in Cuba, Puerto Rico, as well as the Philippines.
With the passage of the National Holiday Act (or Uniform Monday Holiday Act; Public Law 90-363) in 1968, Memorial Day was given the floating date of the last Monday in May across the country starting in 1971.
The Memorial Day weekend is three days long for most people since many companies close for the holiday. It is the unofficial beginning of the summer vacation season that lasts until the first Monday in September, which is Labor Day.
There are numerous traditions followed on Memorial Day. One is the U.S. flag quickly being raised to the tops of flagpoles, then slowly lowered to half-mast, and then raised again to full height at noon. The time at half-mast is meant to honor the million-plus fallen U.S. soldiers who have died for their country over the years. Re-raising the flag is meant to symbolize the resolve of the living to carry on the fight for freedom so that the nation’s heroes will not have died in vain.
It is also very common for people across the country to visit military cemeteries at this time of year to decorate the graves. Small American flags, flowers, and wreathes are commonly placed by the tombstones.
Many wear or put on display red poppies on this day. This tradition grew out of the famous poem by Canadian John McCrae known as “In Flander’s Fields,” which he was inspired to write upon seeing red poppies growing over the graves of World War I soldiers.