Memorial Day is a time for family gatherings, outdoor entertainment, and bringing the spring season to an end. But with so much fun in the sun, the true meaning of Memorial Day often gets lost in the shuffle.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- When is Memorial Day and Memorial Day Weekend Every Year?
- What is Memorial Day?
- History of Memorial Day
- How You Can Celebrate Memorial Day
So what does Memorial Day really represent, and how can you incorporate that into your annual festivities? Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about this essential American holiday.
When is Memorial Day and Memorial Day Weekend Every Year?
Memorial Day marks the “unofficial” beginning of summer. It’s a three-day weekend for many Americans (Saturday through Monday), and it’s a time when the weather is finally warming up. And that means many households plan BBQs, picnics, pool days, and other get-togethers over the long weekend.
The date of Memorial Day changes each year. Instead of taking place on a specific date, Memorial Day falls on the last Monday of May annually.
Here are the dates for Memorial Day in the next several years.
- 2021: Monday, May 31
- 2022: Monday, May 30
- 2023: Monday, May 29
- 2024: Monday, May 27
- 2025: Monday, May 26
What is Memorial Day?
Memorial Day (sometimes also referred to as Decoration Day) is an American holiday in the month of May. Across America, the three-day weekend leading up to and including Memorial Day consists of summer fun and festivities, as well as activities honoring those who died in war.
Knowing the true meaning and purpose of Memorial Day can help you get even more from your celebrations. While enjoying time with friends and family on this day is important, it’s also essential to remember the origins of the holiday and what it’s all about.
The underlying meaning of Memorial Day is honoring those who’ve died fighting in the American military.
On Memorial Day each May, many people visit military cemeteries like Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. It’s common to bring flowers, as well as American flags, to decorate the graves of those who died in war.
Memorial Day vs. Veterans Day
Memorial Day and Veterans Day have similar themes, so if you’re not sure of the differences, you’re not alone.
While Veterans Day is a time to honor and show gratitude towards all veterans who’ve served the United States, Memorial Day is specifically reserved for remembering those who died in service.
And while both national holidays are equally important, it’s also essential to dedicate Memorial Day to honoring all of those who died serving and protecting the United States.
History of Memorial Day
Memorial Day is a national holiday with deep historical roots. This year, you can make your Memorial Day celebrations even more meaningful by understanding its history and sharing that history with friends and family.
The history of Memorial Day dates back to just after the Civil War came to a close. In May of 1868 (three years after the end of the Civil War) an organization of Union veterans established a holiday called Decoration Day.
Decoration Day was a designated date when citizens were encouraged to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. The date of Decoration Day was set as May 30, as it’s a time when flowers were in bloom nationwide.
Decoration Day becomes Memorial Day
After World War I, Decoration Day was expanded to honor Americans who died in all wars, rather than only those who died fighting in the Civil War.
And in 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day as a national holiday. At the same time, Congress placed the holiday on the last Monday of May, rather than May 30.
Birthplace of Memorial Day
The first large observance of Decoration Day took place in 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. However, many towns held their own grave-decoration services several years before the official establishment of Decoration Day.
In 1966, President Johnson and Congress declared Waterloo, New York the “birthplace of Memorial Day.” It’s believed that the people of Waterloo were the first to hold their own decoration ceremonies following the Civil War.
On May 5, 1866, businesses in Waterloo closed, and residents flew their flags at half-mast. The residents of Waterloo also held a ceremony honoring their local veterans who’d fought in the Civil War.
How You Can Celebrate Memorial Day
There are countless ways to observe and celebrate Memorial Day, from simple family gatherings to more traditional decoration ceremonies. If you’re brainstorming some ideas for your next Memorial Day celebration, consider the activities below.
1. Attend a parade
The central Memorial Day celebrations across the United States are local parades. Memorial Day parades often feature military personnel and veterans, as well as military vehicles of all types.
If you want to join your community in showing gratitude on Memorial Day, check to see whether your town or city has its own event. Because of pandemic-related restrictions, some events may be canceled or live streamed instead of in-person in 2021.
2. Practice proper flag etiquette
You can also join your neighbors in celebrating Memorial Day by practicing the appropriate flag etiquette.
On Memorial Day, the American flag should be raised quickly, all the way to the top. The flag should then be slowly and solemnly lowered to the half-staff position.
The American flag should remain at half-staff only until noon, at which point it should return to full-staff for the rest of the day.
3. Wear a red flower
Memorial Day originated just after the Civil War when American citizens (on both sides) felt a need to honor their fallen war heroes.
But many Memorial Day traditions developed as the years and decades passed. After the “Great War” claimed some 8.5 soldiers’ lives, a new tradition bloomed.
On the barren battlefields of Western Europe, red poppies grew from the ground after the fighting ceased. As a sign of remembrance, citizens took to wearing red silk poppies pinned to their clothes.
This Memorial Day, you can continue that tradition by wearing a red silk poppy in remembrance of the lives lost in all wars.
4. Take a moment
Most Americans are aware of Memorial Day. But fewer people in the United States observe the National Moment of Remembrance, which takes place on the same day.
The National Moment of Remembrance was enacted as a way to re-instill the meaning of Memorial Day. At 3:00 pm local time on Memorial Day, all Americans are encouraged to stop what they’re doing for one minute.
5. Spend time outdoors
The end of May is a time when the seasons are changing from spring to summer, which is why the date was chosen.
To honor military members who died in service, you can spend time outdoors enjoying newly-blooming flowers and foliage with your family and friends.
Although Memorial Day isn’t all about enjoying time off and having fun, it’s certainly encouraged to make the most of any clear skies that might be over-head.
6. Join in a candlelight vigil
If you’d like to attend a ceremony that’s more solemn than a parade or picnic, consider finding a candlelight vigil in your area.
Candlelight vigils allow community members to join together in silent reflection and prayer (if that’s your thing). It’s a perfect way to show gratitude and make Memorial Day more meaningful.
7. Visit a military cemetery
On Memorial Day, many Americans visit miliary cemeteries to demonstrate their gratitude and pay tribute. If you live near a military gravesite and want to partake, consider bringing flowers or an American flag with you to adorn one of the headstones.
8. Remember a family member
Many Americans personally know someone who died in war. If your loved one died serving their country, you can use Memorial Day as an opportunity to remember them. Visit your loved one’s gravesite with flowers or an American flag.
You could even take a moment to light a candle in their honor or spend the National Moment of Remembrance there with them.
9. Play a bugle call
The historical bugle call “Taps” is the perfect addition to any Memorial Day activity you choose. “Taps” is traditionally played at military funerals, as well as other remembrance services, including those on Memorial Day. The call evokes deep emotions and pays tribute to those who lost their lives in service.
On Memorial Day, you can often find radio stations playing the traditional tune. If you play an instrument, you can also find sheet music to play “Taps” yourself. “Taps” is also the perfect accompaniment to the National Moment of Remembrance if you choose to observe it.
Why is Memorial Day Important?
Memorial Day might be just another day off from school or work for many people. But for families who’ve lost someone in the military, the day holds much more meaning. We can show solidarity with those families, as well as with all of our military veterans, by taking part in meaningful Memorial Day activities.
Whether you just join together with family and let them know how much they mean to you, or you go a more traditional route and take part in parades and vigils, Memorial Day is the perfect time for giving thanks.
- “Memorial Day history.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. www.va.gov/opa/speceven/memday/history.asp
- Pruitt, Sarah. “The WWI origins of the poppy as a remembrance symbol.” History. 9 November 2018. www.history.com/news/world-war-i-poppy-remembrance-symbol-veterans-day