A Federally recognized holiday, to some Memorial Day signals the beginning of the summer season. In reality, it is the day that we remember those who have given their lives for their country in the armed forces of the United States. Always held on the final Monday of the month of May, Memorial Day originated back in the 1860s during the Civil War when it was mutually decided that the soldiers who had perished in the war should be commemorated, regardless of whether they served in the Union or the Confederacy during the conflict.
Memorial Day should not be confused with Veterans Day, even though the two do overlap somewhat in what they celebrate. Whereas Veterans Day celebrates all in the past and present who have served in the U.S Military, Memorial Day specifically only commemorates those who have died while they have served.
Traditions of Memorial Day
There are a number of traditions that set Memorial Day firmly apart from other holidays.
- Flag Draped Cemeteries. On the weekend before Memorial Day on or to your way home from work, you will commonly see people standing by flags, memorials and cemeteries in order to honor those they knew who has died serving in the military. At cemeteries in particular, you will might see an American flag placed over the graves of servicemen or women.
- A Half Staff Flag for a Half Day. You may not have ever noticed it, but for the first half of Memorial Day the flag is at half staff, while for the second half it has returned to the top. This is because each Memorial Day morning, the flag will be raised to the top of a flagstaff and then lowered to the half position. The flag remains in the half position until noon strikes, when it will be raised to the top of the staff and remain there. The symbolic explanation behind this practice is that the flag at half staff serves to commemorate the men and women who have died in the military, while the re-raised flag commemorates how America still stands tall and that their lives were not sacrificed in vain.
- Parades and Concerts. Most of us are familiar with the Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Years Day parades. But Memorial Day has very festive parades (and concerts) as well. For example, each Memorial Day the National Memorial Day Concert is held on the west side of the lawn of the U.S Capitol building, and is broadcast nationally. Most large and small cities nationwide also host parades featuring military marching bands, veterans, National Guardsmen, and real military vehicles.
- Decoration Day. A little known trivia fact of Memorial Day is that the very term ‘Memorial Day’ is not the original term for the holiday. Instead, the term ‘Decoration Day’ was used to describe the holiday instead, and it was only until 1967 that the name was officially changed. For fun, ask your grandparents or any other older relatives you may have and ask if they remember a ‘Decoration Day.’
- Date of Contention. The current date of Memorial Day, the final Monday of May, is one that is held in contention and not accepted by many people across the country. Previously, Memorial Day was always held on May 30 before Congress officially moved it (along with three other national holidays) forward to Monday in order to create a three day weekend. This added day no doubt added much convenience and time to spend with friends and families for many workers, but it also upset many individuals who felt that the sacrifice of our servicemen and women was being inadvertently dishonored.
- Indy 500. Even if you’re not a fan of the Indianapolis 500 or of car racing in general, Memorial Day may be the day you want to tune in just for a few minutes to observe as much car action as you can. One of the longest traditions (dating all the way back to 1911) in the car racing world is how the Indy 500 is always held on the Sunday right before the Memorial Day holiday.
- A Religious Observance? Believe it or not, but some professional sociologists and other scientists who study human behavior believe that Memorial Day is treated as a sacred day by some people, including those who do not identify with any official religion. This concept is referred to as a ‘civil religion,’ meaning it is a day or event of observance treated religiously that is commonly practiced by those who follow no official religion and is not held in association with any religious institutions. Just like any organized religion or denomination, a civil religion has to have a revolving theme, and Memorial Day is certainly no exception in this department. In this case, the theme for memorial day is one of death and sacrifice, for the servicemen and women who gave their lives for the freedom that we enjoy today in the United States of America.