When the end of Spring approaches, many national holidays are on the horizon, and looming large among them is Memorial Day. As a holiday, it stands out for its traditionally somber tone—seemingly alone among a class of officially recognized days that are jubilant and celebratory, but it’s perhaps the most important of them because of this.
Today we explore this most solemn of holidays, why it’s important, and what you can do to respectfully observe it without accidentally falling into the trap of saying well-meaning but potentially insensitive things like “Happy Memorial Day.” If you don’t know why that might be the wrong thing to say, especially to a veteran, I hope you’ll join us on our dive into what was once known as “Decoration Day” and find out.
What Is Memorial Day?
Memorial Day is a national holiday meant to honor and remember those who died serving in America’s military. Its roots go back to the Civil War, with Mississippi, Virginia, and South Carolina all having early versions by 1865, and in 1866, a women’s memorial association in Columbus, Mississippi, held a spring ceremony in remembrance of war dead on both sides, decorating graves of those from both the North and the South with flowers. Just after the Civil War, General John Logan, the Commander in Chief of a fraternal organization for Civil War veterans called the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), enumerated May 30, 1868 as the first annual day to decorate the graves of fellow soldiers killed in the war, and the precedent for a national Memorial Day was set.
Decoration Day, as it was initially called, caught on quickly in a population so recently ravaged by the 650,000-plus causalities of the war on both sides. The ceremony eventually expanded beyond recognizing just the Civil War into a day to commemorate the loss of American war dead throughout U.S. history.
In 1888, for example, approximately 20 years after its inception, Decoration Day was observed by an official diplomatic delegation visiting Mexico City to commemorate the American soldiers lost in the Mexican War and had truly transcended beyond its initial limited scope. Perhaps as a result of this expansion in meaning, Decoration Day slowly came to be known as Memorial Day over the early- to mid-20th century. In May of 1918, during World War I, temporary cemeteries were the scene of U.S. Army-held Memorial Day ceremonies. A year later, in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson addressed a crowd at Suresnes American Cemetery near Paris in remembrance of those who gave their lives, and the kindness the French had showed departed American soldiers by maintaining and decorating their graves. Memorial Day had come to be a day of somber remembrance, and of honoring those whose sacrifice for their country included their lives.
By the mid-20th century, Memorial Day was commonly observed on May 30. The day became an official holiday in 1967. In 1968, it was changed to be observed on the last Monday of May through the passage of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act by Congress, which changed the observance of certain national holidays to specific Mondays throughout the year.