Memorial Day: the Meaning and Observance of The Holiday

War is a sad, but very real part of the modern era. Many of us enjoy freedom and safety because countless people gave their lives to defend such virtues and rights. To honor those that have fallen in battle, a holiday known as Memorial Day was created. While this specific holiday is an American tradition, nations around the world have their own ways of honoring the fallen.

With a solemn respect, we shall explore the meaning and traditional observance of this annual event and explore it’s origins in early American history. There is no greater sacrifice than laying your life down to protect those you love and the cause you fight for. We honor these fallen soldiers and we remember them every day, on this day we pay our respects.

The Annual Date and Traditional Observance of This Holiday

This federal holiday is is held in the United States each year on the last Monday in May. For the year 2015, that date will be May 25. The day is meant to call to mind the sacrifice and courage displayed by those who died while serving on the country’s armed forces. There are numerous ways that people honor and respect the fallen on this day.

Below are some of the traditional observances:

  1. The American Flag

As part of tradition, the flag of the United States should be raised quickly to the top of its staff then slowly lowered to half mast. It remains there until noon on the holiday to remind us of those who have fallen. According to section 1082 of the 1998 Defense Authorization act, the POW-MIA (prisoner of war, missing in action) flag is to be placed at half-staff until noon on all Federal and U.S. Military installations on this day.

  1. Red Poppies

Known also as Remembrance Poppies, this type of plant was first noted in 1915, following the Second Battle of Ypres. Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a physicians with the Expeditionary Force, wrote a poem entitled “In Flanders Fields.”

The poem described fields of red poppies that grew among the soldier’s graves on the battlefield in Flanders. The symbol was officially recognized in 1918 when a YMCA worker by the name of Moina Michael attended an Overseas War Secretaries conference wearing a silk poppy herself, and distributing them to over two dozen others at the conference. Since then, these remembrance poppies have been a symbol of those who gave their lives in battle.

  1. Weekend Celebrations and Practices

Over the course of the weekend leading up to the holiday, there are several types of celebrations and solemn acts that organizations and families do to honor the coming holiday. Music concerts, Barbeque celebrations, and other patriotic gatherings are common, in addition to parades in both small and large cities.

Starting in the 1950s, every year on the Thursday prior to the coming holiday, 1,200 soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry place a small American Flag on over 260,000 gravestones at the Arlington National Cemetery. Over the weekend they patrol twenty-four hours a day to ensure that none of the flags are disturbed.

Similar practices have been put in place at other military cemeteries by organizations like the Boy and Girl Scouts of America to further honor the fallen. Finally, the National Memorial Day Concert always takes place on the west lawn of the United States Capitol. The concern is broadcasted on PBS and NPR.

  1. The National Moment of Remembrance

Beginning in May of 2000, the U.S. government put forth a request to the people of the nation known as the National Moment of Remembrance. It occurs each year on the holiday at approximately 3:00 p.m. local time. The accepted observance of this moment is pausing at this time, no matter what you’re doing, to reflect and remember those who died fighting for freedom.

The moment of silence is only supposed to last one minute and is meant to provide a quiet moment of reflection to remember the purpose of the holiday.

The Origin and History of the Holiday

Honoring fallen soldiers is a practice that spans far back into history. Before and during the American Civil War, people would decorate a soldier’s grave with flowers to pay their respects. While there are many locations that claim to be the first place where this was done, historians in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania have said that ladies in that city decorated soldier’s graves on July 4, 1864.

As a result, the city promotes itself as the birthplace of memorial day. After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in April of 1865, various events began to appear that commemorated fallen soldiers and heroes of the time. Over 600,000 soldiers died on both sides of the war, something that changed the culture of America in permanent ways.

During the war, many women in places of leadership took to decorating soldier’s graves with flowers. This resulted in the government creating national military cemeteries for the union soldiers that fell in the war. The first major and widely-known service was after the Civil War in Charleston, South Carolina.

On May 1, 1865 the service was held, but not before major preparations were made. The location was the Hampton Park Race Course which had been used a place to hold union prisoners of war. At least 257 soldiers died in that place and they were buried quickly in unmarked graves. In conjunction with teachers and missionaries, the black residents of Charleston organized a May Day ceremony in 1865.

The event was covered by the New York Tribune and other major newspapers around the nation. They cleaned the area and landscaped the burial grounds, they also built an arch that was labeled “Martyrs of the Race Course.” The event was attended by over 10,000 people on May 1st of that year.

Over 3,000 of the attendees were school children. Others were part of mutual aid societies, union troops, black ministers, and white northern missionaries. Almost all of them brought flowers to lay upon the burial field. David W. Blight described the day, saying the following:

“This was the first Memorial Day. African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.”

He didn’t have solid evidence that the event was the inspiration for a Memorial holiday, but his words still rang true regardless.

There is a significant amount of locations that claim to be the birthplace of this iconic day, but on May 26, 1966, President Johnson signed a presidential proclamation that named Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of the holiday. The 89th Congress previously approved House Concurrent Resolution 587, which recognized that the patriotic tradition of Memorial Day started one hundred years ago in Waterloo, New York.

Controversy Over the Name and Date

The holiday began under the name “Decoration Day” after the American Civil War, to commemorate soldiers that died in said war. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that the day was changed in name and broadened to represent all of the fallen soldiers throughout history. The name switch was slow to start, it wasn’t entirely used until after the Second World War.

In 1967 the switch to the current name was declared official in the eyes of Federal law. On June 28th 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act would moved a total of four holidays, this one included, from previous dates to a specific Monday. This was done to create a convenient three-day-weekend.

Originally the holiday was on May 30th but now it is the last Monday in May each year. It took until 1971 to be fully implemented and used by the 50 States. Initially there was confusion around the change and some states were unwilling to comply with the change. The new holiday date is recognized by most businesses because it also marks the beginning of the summer season.

Two organizations, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War are still fighting to return the holiday to the original date. The date itself doesn’t have any specific meaning, but the VFW did make a statement in their 2002 address:

“Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”

While the public’s observance of the holiday is a point of contrition, the fact of the matter is the holiday is incredibly important as a means of honoring the soldiers who gave their lives to protect the people, and the country they love. It is important to remember and respect that sacrifice, regardless of the holiday’s date. Thank you as always for reading.