The Historical Meaning of Memorial Day

Memorial Day is a national holiday that is celebrated on the last Monday of May. For many of us, the main importance of this day is that it marks the unofficial beginning of summer. We celebrate the day with picnics, swimming parties and baseball games. Some people use this day to put flowers and other decorations on the graves of their loved ones. But historically, Memorial Day is not about any of these things.

Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day and it was a day set aside to honor both the Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War (1861-1865) by decorating their graves. Although there are stories of “grave decoration” days in all parts of the country, the first one of national importance was in 1868 at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where both sides’ armies fought a fierce battle in 1863 and where soldiers from both sides are buried. Five years later, people from both the North and the South came together at that place to honor their dead soldiers. The fact that former enemies came to one place to honor their dead was a sign that the nation might be healing from the Civil War.

After World War I, the red poppy flower became a symbol of Decoration Day. After the horrific battles in Europe, where the soil had been disturbed, the dormant poppy seeds came to life and red poppies filled the fields. A soldier noticed the poppies blooming and penned a poem, In Flanders Fields. The poem inspired people to wear red poppies on Memorial Day to honor those who died serving the nation during the war. Soon red poppies were sold to raise money to benefit veterans and their families. Today red artificial poppies are assembled by disabled veterans and sold on Memorial Day to raise money to support veteran’s welfare programs.

Eventually, Decoration Day became known as Memorial Day and a time to honor all those who have died who have served in the Armed Forces of the United States.  In 1971, the United States Congress passed a bill declaring the last Monday in May was to be called Memorial Day and it was to be a national holiday.  President Johnson signed the bill into law.

Memorial Day is different from Veterans Day, a national holiday celebrated on November 11. On Veterans Day, all members of the military, living and dead, are remembered. Memorial Day is specifically set aside to honor military veterans who have died. Memorial Day is still a “decoration” day because across this country, volunteers will place flags on veterans’ graves.

This information was prepared and distributed as part of the Missouri Press Association’s Newspapers in Education program.

Click here to download a PDF version of the material.

Millie Aulbur is The Missouri Bar Director of Citizenship Education. Her primary work is developing materials and programs to assist and enhance the work of Missouri’s civics and government teachers.

Photo: Memorial Day at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery

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