Happy Memorial Day! If you're out of school and many of the adults around you are off work, there's a good chance you'll be celebrating a holiday that many consider to be the unofficial start to summer.
But what exactly is Memorial Day? Why do people celebrate on Memorial Day? What exactly are they remembering?
Unlike Christmas and New Year's Day, and even Veterans Day, which are celebrated by many people around the world, Memorial Day is an American holiday. Observed on the last Monday of May each year, Memorial Day honors all the men and women who have died while serving in the United States military.
The holiday was not always called Memorial Day. When it got its start just after the Civil War, it was originally known as Decoration Day. Decoration Day began as a way to commemorate the overwhelming number of brave soldiers who had lost their lives in the Civil War.
The Civil War devastated the United States, and shortly after its end, communities around the country started holding springtime memorials to the many soldiers who died during the conflict. People would gather together to pray and place flowers and flags on their graves.
Although these tributes likely began simultaneously in many different communities, the U.S. government declared Waterloo, New York, as the official birthplace of Memorial Day in 1966. Waterloo had first held a memorial celebration for fallen soldiers on May 5, 1866.
The push for a nationwide day of remembrance came from General John A. Logan, who was the leader of a group of Northern Civil War veterans. The first Decoration Day took place on May 30, 1868, when over 5,000 people decorated the graves of over 20,000 soldiers buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
As years passed and more wars occurred, the holiday eventually became known as Memorial Day. It also evolved beyond its Civil War-roots into a remembrance of all men and women who died while serving in the military.
The holiday continued to be celebrated on May 30 for many years. Then, in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which defined Memorial Day as an annual federal holiday to be observed on the last Monday in May each year. The law took effect in 1971, and Memorial Day has been the last Monday in May ever since.
Memorial Day celebrations take many forms across the country. Many cities hold parades to honor veterans who lost their lives in service to their country. These parades often feature current military personnel, as well as members of veterans' organizations. Large Memorial Day parades take place in Washington, D.C., New York, and Chicago.
Many Americans also take time on Memorial Day to visit cemeteries and memorials. Decorating the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers and American flags remains a popular tradition on Memorial Day. Since the holiday has also become associated with the unofficial start of summer and many people have a three-day weekend because of Memorial Day, many people also have family gatherings, picnics, and barbecues.