Memorial Day Traditions and the Reasons Behind Them

shutterstock_137687687Monday, May 26, is Memorial Day in the United States. Customarily celebrated the last Monday in May, it is more than just a three-day weekend that kicks off summer. It is a time of remembrance for the men and women who died in all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.

The very first Memorial Day was on May 30, 1868. Occurring a few years after the end of the American Civil War, it was known as Decoration Day, and commemorated both Union and Confederate fallen soldiers. By the 20th century the preferred name had changed to Memorial Day, although May 30 continued to be designated as a holiday, and it came to include all Americans who died in military service. On June 28, 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved Memorial Day to the last Monday in May. It has been celebrated this way ever since.

Amidst the backyard barbecues, parades, festivals and holiday travels, there has always been an air of solemnity surrounding Memorial Day, as we honor as well as mourn those who died while serving their country. For many, it is an occasion of tradition and ritual steeped in symbolism:

  • Flags and/or flowers are placed on the graves of the fallen to mark, remember and honor them. Red, white and blue flowers are placed to represent the colors of the American flag. Red flowers, and red poppies in particular, are also traditional, as symbols of blood shed on the battlefield.
  • Memorials erected to commemorate those who died in the military often hold services, readings and demonstrations. Many regional memorials recognize the role of their local heroes.
  • Military institutions across the country play Taps, which became popular in 1862 as a signal for the end of the soldier’s day. It takes on a more poignant meaning at military funerals, wreath-layings and Memorial Day services.
  • The U.S. flag is flown at half-staff until noon in recognition of those who have passed. At noon, it is raised up to full-staff by the living, who symbolically “raise” their memory and resolve to not let their sacrifice be in vain. The POW/MIA flag may be flown similarly.
  • In 2000, the White House issued a memo encouraging all government institutions and private citizens to share in a moment of silence at 3pm known as a National Moment of Remembrance. It is considered a time to pause and reflect upon the true meaning of Memorial Day.

No matter how you and your family celebrate Memorial Day, SelectQuote wishes you a safe and happy holiday.

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