Memorial Day Is About so Much More Than Barbecues and Mattress Sales

Memorial Day Is About so Much More Than Barbecues and Mattress Sales
AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Pool

Memorial Day is known to many as a day to head out on a road trip, host a barbecue, or take advantage of the numerous sales that you’ll see advertised everywhere. But it is so much more than that.

The holiday, which this year falls on Monday, May 30, originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971. Not to be confused with Veteran’s Day, which honors all veterans, Memorial Day specifically celebrates vets who were killed in battle, or as a result of participating in battle.

The origins of Memorial Day are murky, but it used to be known as “Decoration Day” because shortly after the Civil War ended, a tradition of decorating the graves of those soldiers who were killed in battle began.

“Why is it celebrated on the fourth Monday of May?” you may ask. History explains:

In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Uniform Holiday Bill, which packaged several federal holidays into the tail end of three-day weekends with the hope of stimulating travel and commerce. As a result, Memorial Day has been celebrated on the fourth Monday of May since 1971. Unofficially, it marks the beginning of the summer season.

Here’s a fun fact you might not know:

In actuality, there are no U.S. national holidays because the states retain the right to designate their own, and the government can only designate holidays for federal employees and for the District of Columbia. In practice, however, states almost always follow the federal lead.

While many view Memorial Day as a chance to get a day off work, for many others it’s a day of solemnity and remembrance as they honor their lost loved ones.

There are still some formal rituals observed: The American flag should be hung at half-staff until noon on Memorial Day, then raised back up. Meanwhile, all citizens are encouraged to pause for a National Moment of Remembrance at 3:00 pm local time, per a 1970 bill passed by Congress.

Click here for eight more interesting facts about the holiday.

There have been many notable Memorial Day speeches over the years; we’ll quote from the very first, given by then-Congressman, veteran, and later president James A. Garfield in 1868 in front of a crowd of 5,000 at Arlington National Cemetery:

I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion. If silence is ever golden, it must be here beside the graves of fifteen thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung.

In 1982 President Ronald Reagan reminded us of the solemnity of the day:


His words still hold true today:

The sight before us is that of a strong and good nation that stands in silence and remembers those who were loved and who, in return, loved their countrymen enough to die for them. Yet we must try to honor them—not for their sakes alone, but for our own. And if words cannot repay the debt we owe these men, surely with our actions, we must strive to keep faith with them and with a vision that led them to battle and to final sacrifice.

There are also myriad moving stories on the internet of regular people explaining what the holiday means to them. Here’s one from a gold-star sister that encapsulates their feelings:

To me, Memorial Day is the day we remember what it means to be a hero. Heroism is deeply rooted in the soldiers we say goodbye to with our tear-stained faces, and those we welcome home with those happier tears. Memorial Day is the day we thank those who did not get the joyous homecoming or have since been laid to rest. It is the day we remember the heroes who gave everything for the soldiers serving next to them and the people they left at home.

By all means, when Monday rolls around, enjoy your burger, clean up at that sale, relax on your day off. Just don’t forget why you are able to do so in freedom — it’s veterans who have kept this country safe on so many occasions.  At 3:00 pm on the 30th of May, take that moment to honor those who died doing so.

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