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Memorial Day: What it Really Means

Soldier holding machine gun with national flag

There is much more to Memorial Day than having the day off, grilling burgers and drinking copious amounts of frothy adult beverages. Memorial Day is about remembering those who paid the ultimate sacrifice to protect our freedoms that we sometimes take for granted.

American Flags on Boston Common, Boston, MA. Photo by Steven Senne / AP.

Memorial Day began under a different name. Decoration Day was once a day set aside for honoring fallen Civil War Union soldiers. The Confederacy had its own version, but it was on different days, though usually in May. General John Logan officially proclaimed Memorial Day on May 5, 1868. Logan was the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. The public first observed the holiday on May 30, 1868, when volunteers placed flowers on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. The first state that recognized the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890, all the northern states had followed suit. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I, when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war. Americans now celebrate it in every state on the last Monday in May, which ensures a three-day weekend for federal holidays. However, several southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: January 19 in Texas, April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi. They celebrate the holiday on May 10 in South Carolina, and June 3, which is Jefferson Davis’ birthday in Louisiana and Tennessee.

The observance of Memorial Day has changed over the years. Some Americans just see it as another day off. They tend to ignore the graves of fallen heroes, and most rarely follow proper flag etiquette. While there are towns and cities that still hold Memorial Day parades, many have not held a parade in decades. Some people think the day is for honoring all dead, and not just those fallen in service to our country.

What we may need to return the solemn, and even sacred, spirit back to Memorial Day is for a return to its traditional day of observance. Many feel that when Congress made the day into a three-day weekend with the National Holiday Act of 1971, it made it all the easier for people to be distracted from the spirit and meaning of the day. The VFW stated in its 2002 Memorial Day address, “Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.” So this year, wait a while before firing up the grill. Take your family to a local cemetery and remind them how large the sacrifice was to the men and women who died for our freedoms. Remember all the young faces that came and went in the daily news reports of roadside bombs. Visit a relative’s grave and thank them for their service, or raise a flag to honor our heroes. Either way, remember why we have the freedoms we enjoy and know that Memorial Day means much more than a Monday out by the pool.

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Comments (2)

  1. Tony, you couldn’t be more right. It’s sad, some of the kids who are in high school right now seem to think they don’t have to do anything to pull their weight for this country. They expect everyone else to do things for them. Hopefully they’ll learn, as we did, that nothing is free.

  2. I always remember. I always pay tribute. I always thank a current Airman, Soldier, Marine, and Seaman whenever I see one in uniform (can’t tell when they are not). Never will I let their service be forgotten by me. I was there too once. I served my country and get a very annoyed feeling when I hear kids today ready to go out to the real world say “I would never waste my time in the military like that, who does that?” that was from an actual conversation that I was witness to. I had to leave the area after I said ” The only waste of time is not to serve and protect your constitutional rights, oh wait you must be one of those that expects someone else to do it for you while you do nothing!”. People like that really anger me.

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