Memorial Day in the USA

Memorial Day is a US holiday which is observed anually on the last Monday in May to honor those who died serving in the US military. Discover everything about its origin and traditions as well as some interesting facts about this day of remembrance.

Origin of Memorial Day

Memorial Day originated in the years after the American Civil War and was initially called Decoration Day. No other war in the history of the United States has claimed more lives than this war from 1861 to 1865, which required the construction of the first national cemeteries to provide proper burials for fallen soldiers.

First Decoration Day celebration

On 5 May 1868, General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, officially announced 30 May 1868 as Decoration Day in honour of the fallen soldiers. The day was designated to decorate their graves with flowers. On the first Decoration Day, the General and later US President James Garfield gave a speech at the National Cemetery in Arlington. There were also 5,000 participants decorating the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers which were buried there.

Start of Memorial Day Events

In the following years, many northern states organised similar commemorative events and continued the tradition. The first US state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890, all northern states had recognized Decortaion Day as an official holiday. The southern states, however, refused to acknowledge this day and continued to honor their dead on separate days until after the First World War. After that war, the holiday was broadened to honor all American fallen soldiers and was no longer limited to the civil war.

Back then, many cities claimed to have started the tradition of Memorial Day. However, in 1966 the government declared the city of Waterloo, New York, to be the official birthplace of Memorial Day. In 1971, Memorial Day was formally proclaimed a national holiday by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, and was moved to the last Monday in May to allow federal employees a three-day weekend. Since 2001, the National Moment of Remembrance Act has defined the local time of 3 p.m. as the moment of remembrance on Memorial Day.

Memorial Day traditions

Since the late 1950s, 1,200 soldiers of the U.S. army place small American flags at each of the approx. 250,000 graves of the Arlington National Cemetery on the Thursday before Memorial Day. The following weekend, they patrol 24 hours per day to make sure each flag remains in place.

Americans celebrate Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries and other memorial sites. Some people wear red poppies in memory of the fallen war heroes or place these flowers on crosses near their graves. This tradition began with the poem "In Flanders Field" from the First World War. The poppy, which flourished on the battlefields in Belgium and France during World War I, has become a symbol of remembrance.

Since Memorial Day unofficially marks the beginning of summer, many people also have barbecues and picnics in the park or go on long weekend trips. In addition, cities and districts organize parades that are often joined by military personnel and members of veteran organizations. Some of the biggest parades take place in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C.

Interesting Memorial Day facts

  • Memorial Day commemorates those who have laid down their lives for U.S. national defence, whereas Veterans Day honours all who have served their country.
  • The war which claimed the most American lives was the Civil war, with over 618,000 deaths, compared to 416,000 in World War II.
  • Since 1776, about 50 million Americans have served in the armed forces.
  • Late May was chosen as the date for Memorial Day as the flowers used to decorate graves would be in full bloom.
  • On Memorial day, a custom is that the American flag is flown at half staff until noon, and then raised until sunset.
  • President Bill Clinton signed the National Moment of Remembrance Act in 2000 asking that all Americans participate in a moment of silence at 3pm on Memorial Day as a sign of respect.
  • Memorial Day is the single most popular day to eat beef each year. Fourth of July and Labor Day tie for the second most popular day.