Memorial Day

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Related to Memorial Day: Labor Day

Memorial Day,

holiday in the United States observed in late May. Previously designated Decoration Day, it was inaugurated in 1868 by Gen. John A. Logan for the purpose of decorating the graves of Civil War veterans and has since become a day on which all war dead are commemorated.

Memorial Day

Type of Holiday: National
Date of Observation: Last Monday in May
Where Celebrated: United States
Symbols and Customs: American Flag, Decoration of Graves, Poppy
Colors: Memorial Day is associated with the colors of the AMERICAN FLAG : red, symbolizing courage; white, symbolizing liberty or purity; and blue, symbolizing loyalty.
Related Holidays: Confederate Memorial Day, Flag Day, Fourth of July


Memorial Day is a national holiday in the United States. National holidays can be defined as those commemorations that a nation's government has deemed important enough to include in the list of official public holidays. They tend to honor a person or event that has been critical in the development of the nation and its identity. Such people and events usually reflect values and traditions shared by a large portion of the citizenry. In the United States, patiotism and identity were nurtured from the beginning of the nation by the very act of celebrating new events in holidays like the Fourth of July, battle anniversaries, and other notable occasions. The invention of traditions and the marking of important occasions in the life of the new nation were crucial in creating a shared bond of tradition and a sense of common belonging to a relatively new homeland through the shared experience of celebrating common holidays, and Memorial Day has become one of the nation's most important shared celebrations.

Memorial Day was originally a day set aside to honor the northern Civil War dead by decorating their graves with flowers (see DECORATION OF GRAVES ). Waterloo, New York, is generally credited with having held the first Memorial Day observance on May 5, 1866. Henry C. Welles, a Waterloo pharmacist, suggested to veterans' organizations that the graves of the dead be decorated with flowers. Referred to at the time as "Decoration Day," this early celebration included flying AMERICAN FLAGS at half-staff, a veterans' parade, and a march to the village cemetery to hear patriotic speeches.

The first nationwide Decoration Day was held on May 30, 1868, by a group of Union Army veterans known as the Grand Army of the Republic. The May 30 date had no real significance, although it roughly coincided with the anniversary of the surrender of the last Confederate army on May 26, 1865. Many southern states felt that Decoration Day was really observed in honor of Union soldiers, so in 1891, Florida designated the birthday of Confederate president Jefferson Davis as CONFEDERATE MEMORIAL DAY . Nine other states followed suit, with dates ranging from April 26, the anniversary of the surrender of General George Johnson at Durham Station (North Carolina), to June 3, Jefferson Davis's birthday. After World War I, the American Legion took over the task of planning the observance, which became known as Memorial Day and honored American servicepeople from all wars.

Both religious services and patriotic parades mark the modern-day observation of Memorial Day. In the national official observance, a wreath is placed on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. One of the more moving observances is held in the Gettysburg National Cemetery in Pennsylvania, where schoolchildren scatter flowers over the graves of unknown Civil War soldiers. In 1986, Hands Across America-originally an effort to raise money for the homeless-was held on Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. The idea was to have an unbroken chain of people holding hands across the entire continent, but not enough people pledged to participate. They were urged to celebrate America anyway, and the event ended up merging with the observation of Memorial Day.


American Flag

There are many theories about the origin of the American flag. Best known is the story of Betsy Ross, an expert seamstress and upholsterer who based her design on a sketch given to her by a committee appointed by Congress, one of whose members happened to be her deceased husband's uncle. It had thirteen stars, symbolic of the thirteen colonies, placed in a circle on a sky blue background to signify that the Union would be "without end." There were also thirteen red and white stripes, the red symbolizing the Mother Country (Great Britain), and the white symbolizing liberty or purity. They were carefully arranged so that red would appear at the top and bottom edge, making the flag easier to see from a great distance. The separation of red stripes by white stripes was also supposed to symbolize America's separation from England.

On Memorial Day the flag is displayed at half-mast, a symbol of mourning, from sunrise until noon, and at full staff from noon until sunset. This rule does not apply, however, to the millions of smaller flags that line American streets and sidewalks. There are also very specific rules governing how the flag should be displayed in churches.

Decoration of Graves

The practice of decorating graves with flowers and wreaths on Memorial Day officially dates back to the first observance in Waterloo, New York, in 1866, although the town of Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, has proclaimed itself the "Birthplace of Memorial Day" because it was decorating soldiers' graves two years earlier. Both of these towns may have gotten the idea from a paragraph in the Troy, New York, Tribune two years after the Civil War ended. It described how the women of Columbus, Mississippi, strewed flowers on the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers, an act that quickly became a symbol of friendship and understanding between the North and the South.

Visiting cemeteries and decorating graves was hardly an American invention. Festivals in both Europe and Asia have featured this custom since very ancient times. In China and Japan, for example, people decorate graves at the LANTERN FESTIVAL, OBON FESTIVAL , and CHING MING. Observances for ALL SOULS' DAY and DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS usually involve visiting and decorating graves as well.


Red paper poppies, symbolic of the war dead because real poppies bloomed everywhere in the battlefield graveyards of France, are traditionally sold by veterans on Memorial Day. The Veterans of Foreign Wars conducted the first nationwide "poppy sale" to raise money for disabled and destitute veterans in 1922. At one time, people referred to Memorial Day as Poppy Day.


Christianson, Stephen G., and Jane M. Hatch. The American Book of Days. 4th ed. New York: H.W. Wilson, 2000. Cohen, Hennig, and Tristram Potter Coffin. The Folklore of American Holidays. 3rd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Ickis, Marguerite. The Book of Patriotic Holidays. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1962. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Tuleja, Tad. Curious Customs: The Stories Behind 296 Popular American Rituals. New York: Harmony, 1987.


Arlington National Cemetery

Gettysburg National Cemetery

Library of Congress

Memorial Day

Last Monday in May
Memorial Day is a legal holiday, formerly known as Decoration Day, proclaimed annually by the president to honor U.S. citizens who have died in war. Since 1950, by congressional request, the day is also set aside to pray for permanent peace.
Both religious services and patriotic parades mark the day's celebrations. In the national official observance, a wreath is placed on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. One of the more moving observances is at the Gettysburg National Cemetery in Pennsylvania, where schoolchildren scatter flowers over the graves of unknown soldiers of the Civil War.
The association of poppies with fallen soldiers was popularized by the poet John McCrae, who wrote the lines "In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row." Flanders was the site of heavy fighting during World War I, and for many who wrote about it later, the poppy came to symbolize both the beauty of the landscape and the blood that was shed there. Poppies are sold by veterans' organizations around the holiday.
The practice of decorating graves of war dead began before the close of the Civil War. However, an officially set day was established in 1868 when Gen. John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued an order naming May 30 as a day for "strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion." The day became known as Decoration Day, but as it was extended to include the dead of all wars, it took the name Memorial Day.
Gettysburg National Military Park
1195 Baltimore Pike, Ste. 100
Gettysburg, PA 17325
717-334-1124; fax: 717-334-1891
Arlington National Cemetery
214 McNair Rd.
Arlington, VA 22211
703-607-8000; fax: 703-607-8583
Library of Congress
101 Independence Ave. S.E.
Washington, DC 20540
202-707-5000; fax: 202-707-8366
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 403
AnnivHol-2000, p. 91
BkHolWrld-1986, May 30
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 132
DictDays-1988, p. 30
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 234
HolSymbols-2009, p. 571
OxYear-1999, p. 228
PatHols-2006, p. 207

Celebrated in: South Korea, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan

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