An official U.S. federal holiday since 1971, Memorial Day is more commemorative than festive. For instance, it is not really appropriate to wish someone a "Happy Memorial Day" because of the solemn nature of the holiday. Still, many people do say that, not in defiance, but because there is also a sense of celebration associated with the day. Towns hold parades to commemorate the observance, groups and families plan picnics, and military gravesites are decorated with small American flags.
Many people confuse Memorial Day with Veteran's Day as being a time to thank military personnel and veterans for their service. While thanking those who serve our country is always a good thing to do, the primary focus on Memorial Day is to honor the men, women, and animals who died while actively serving in the U.S. military.
The American Civil War resulted in the most casualties of any U.S. conflict in history and was the catalyst for the establishment of the first military, or national, cemeteries. Americans in both the north and south would honor their fallen soldiers by decorating their graves and saying prayers. As a result, Decoration Day was officially established in 1868 by Union General John A. Logan specifically for this practice of remembrance. This expanded and evolved with subsequent wars to include all soldiers since who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving their country.
May 30th was selected as the commemorative day, although it took some time for the northern and southern states to celebrate Decoration Day on the same date, but eventually they did. It remained set until the US Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, establishing Memorial Day as being observed on the last Monday in May in order to give federal employees a three-day weekend. That law also decreed "Memorial Day" a federal holiday.
Remembering the Animals
Animals have long played a strong role in the military and those who lost their lives while in service are also included as Memorial Day honorees. Statues honoring war dogs are becoming more common in various cities, and there are a growing number of stories about military working dogs. Other animals that have served in our military throughout the years are horses, mules, cats, bats, bees, dolphins, sea lions, and birds. Countless human lives have been saved because of the work these animals did and continue to do.
How to Observe the Holiday
Because the coronavirus pandemic is still very active, many parades and celebrations involving crowds of people have been cancelled for 2020. If you do go out to an event or to visit a cemetery, please take all necessary precautions to keep yourself and others safe.
Here are some things that you can do to observe Memorial Day from home:
- Fly an American flag. Large or small. If you are able, the flag should be flown at half-staff.
- Attend a Memorial Day religious service virtually. Many churches are offering services via zoom or google. Check with your church for information.
- Participate in a "National Moment of Remembrance" at 3 PM local time to reflect on the meaning of the day and those who served.
- Visit the National Mall online for links to virtual wreath laying ceremonies taking place and other scheduled events.
- Visit Arlington National Cemetery virtually and find notable graves and sites with their Find A Grave search.
- Watch the National Memorial Day Parade on television at 2 PM (click the link to find times in your area).
- Watch the National Memorial Day Concert on PBS at 8 PM (click the link to find times in your area).
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