Memorial Day is one of the most unique American holidays since it is not celebrated outside the U.S. In fact, Memorial Day is a significant holiday in the United States that is observed on the last Monday in May each year since its inception in 1868 as it serves as a time to honor and remember the men and women who have died while serving in the U.S. military, so more than a holiday per se, it’s a day of remembrance and solemn observance.
The roots of Memorial Day can be traced back to the aftermath of the American Civil War, which took place within American territories from 1861 to 1865. This armed conflict resulted in a staggering loss of life, with an estimated 620,000 soldiers killed in battles and many more who died in the years after. In the years following the war, communities across the country began holding ceremonies to honor and decorate the graves of fallen soldiers, many of whom fought for ideals that shaped what the United States are now as a country and are the foundations of the core values of this land.
One of the earliest commemorations resembling Memorial Day was “Decoration Day.” This name originated from the early tradition of decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers and flags. The exact origin of the term is disputed. Still, it is believed to have been first used in the years immediately following the Civil War and, since its inception, had become a day dedicated to the memory of those fallen in that conflict, thus being directly connected to the graves of the soldiers from that conflict.
The first widely recognized observance of Memorial Day took place on May 30, 1868, when General John A. Logan, the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (an organization of Union veterans that was created after the civil war), proclaimed it as a day to decorate the graves of Union soldiers. By the late 19th century, Memorial Day had become an annual event observed by many states.
After World War I, Memorial Day evolved to encompass honoring all American military personnel who died in any conflict, regardless of their alliance; thus, it became more inclusive, recognizing the sacrifices of soldiers from various wars and conflicts all around the globe. In 1971, Memorial Day was officially declared a federal holiday by the United States Government and was designated to be observed on the last Monday in May, providing a long weekend for people to pay tribute and engage in commemorative activities.
Memorial Day is observed differently across the United States, and there is no official way to do it. Many people visit cemeteries and memorials to leave flowers, flags, or other tributes on the graves of fallen soldiers in a very solemn moment of thoughtful remembrance. Parades and public ceremonies featuring patriotic displays, speeches, and musical performances are common nationwide. Additionally, it has become a tradition to fly the U.S. flag at half-staff until noon on Memorial Day as a symbol of mourning, then raise it to full-staff for the remainder of the day to symbolize the resilience and spirit of the nation in every government and military building.
This day holds great significance as a time for remembrance, gratitude, and reflection. It serves as an opportunity to honor the brave men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country. It also provides a moment to acknowledge the ongoing dedication and sacrifices of the active-duty military personnel and veterans who have served or continue to serve in the different branches of the United States military forces.
In the United States, Memorial Day is often considered the unofficial start of the summer season, as it occurs when the weather starts to change from the chill spring days into the warmer days of summer. As the holiday falls on the last Monday in May, it provides a long weekend that many people use as an opportunity to enjoy outdoor activities, spend time with family and friends, and kick off the summer season with outdoor activities that can be enjoyed by all without much concern regarding the hot and humid weather. Some traditions and activities commonly associated with this important date are:
How to celebrate Memorial Weekend
Barbecues and Picnics: Many people celebrate Memorial Day by hosting or attending barbecues and picnics where grilling food outdoors, enjoying picnic-style meals, and sharing good company are popular activities that have become staples this holiday. Traditional barbecue fare includes hamburgers, hot dogs, grilled chicken, ribs, and various side dishes. It is an excellent way of spending time with loved ones and friends and enjoying a day far from crowded places.
Beach Trips and Outdoor Recreation: With warmer weather, many people take advantage of Memorial Day weekend to visit beaches, lakes, or other outdoor destinations that invite them to jump into the water and wash the stress away. Swimming, sunbathing, camping, hiking, boating, and fishing are popular activities, especially for people who have been forced to endure warmer indoors for the last few months and are eager to get a well-deserved splash.
Patriotic Displays: Memorial Day is an occasion to display the American flag. Many individuals and communities decorate their homes, businesses, and public spaces with flags, bunting, and other patriotic decorations. It symbolizes unity, pride, and respect for the country and its fallen heroes. Waving a flag in someone’s garden might also be a personal display of respect for a fallen family member who has been lost to a war or a veteran.
Memorial Day Sales: Although the origins of this day are not connected to any commercial concept, retailers often hold sales and promotions during Memorial Day weekend, making it a popular time for shopping. Consumers can find discounts on various items, including clothing, electronics, home goods, and outdoor equipment. This element of shopping, not observed in the day’s origins, has become an excellent opportunity for brands and consumers to take advantage of great deals and packages.
Moment of Remembrance: At 3:00 p.m. local time on Memorial Day, there is a tradition of observing a national moment of remembrance. This moment allows people to pause and reflect on the sacrifices made by military members. Not to be confused with a religious tradition, this moment is a philosophical reflection moment where the memories of past and present conflicts remind us of what we’ve lost and achieved through sacrifice.
Cemetery Visits and Memorial Services: Many individuals visit cemeteries and memorials on Memorial Day to pay respects to fallen soldiers, some of whom might be family members, brothers in arms, or, in some cases, veterans who have earned the community’s appreciation. They may bring flowers, wreaths, or flags to place on gravesites and, in some cases, more personal tokens of appreciation that tell more familiar and intimate stories. Memorial services are often held at military cemeteries, where speeches, prayers, and ceremonies occur, ensuring respect and including every faith and religion.
Some popular Memorial Day events in NYC include Fleet Week, the Little Neck-Douglaston Memorial Day Parade, and the Memorial Day Concert at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
The weekend also marks the start of outdoor events and activities across the city, such as the Governors Island Art Fair, the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit, and Shakespeare in the Park. Some other notable events include the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival, the Brooklyn Flea Record Fair, and the Music Hall of Williamsburg’s Memorial Day Weekend Bash. Other activities include:
- Visiting the new Hudson Yards development.
- Exploring the High Line.
- Taking a boat ride along the Hudson River.
No matter where you look, the city offers many options to honor the veterans, remember our fallen brothers or provide spaces to partake in activities for the whole family.
It’s important to note that while Memorial Day has come to symbolize the start of summer and is celebrated with various activities, the holiday’s true purpose is to honor and remember those who have died while serving in the military. Reflecting on the sacrifices made by servicemen and servicewomen is a meaningful part of the Memorial Day tradition.