Memorial Day is truly an American holiday and has been observed on the last Monday of May since 1971. This day honors the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. Memorial Day is not to be confused with Veteran’s Day, the day that celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans. Originally, Memorial Day was known as Decoration Day and had its beginning following the American Civil War, a war that claimed more American lives than any war or conflict in the history of the United States. Historians estimate the number of those who died in the Civil War at more than 600,000. Following this war, it was necessary for the country to establish the first of many national cemeteries.
Around 1868, Americans were calling for a nationwide day of remembrance, and May 30 was designated as Decoration Day. In numerous U.S. towns and cities people were holding springtime tributes to fallen Civil War soldiers. They decorated graves with flowers and held services at the cemeteries to honor the dead. Then following WWI, Decoration Day became a time to remember all fallen American military personnel. For decades Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30, the day that had been selected in 1868 as the first Decoration Day.
In 1968, one hundred years after the first Memorial Day designation, the United States Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act that declared Memorial Day to be on the last Monday in May. Taking effect in 1971, this created the three-day weekend for federal employees and proclaimed the day a federal holiday. Originally Uniform Monday Holiday Act created five Monday holidays—President’s Day, which combined Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays, and was to be observed on the third Monday in February; Memorial Day, to be observed on the last Monday in May; Labor Day, to be observed on the first Monday in September; Columbus Day, to be observed on the second Monday in October; Veteran’s Day, which was originally to be observed on the fourth Monday in October but was returned to November 11 in 1978 and is not now a part of the Monday holidays. The Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday holiday on the third Monday in January was added in 1983.
Traditionally, Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer. It has become a time for families to gather together and to remember their own loved ones who have passed on, as well as to enjoy picnics and other outdoor events with friends and family. While all this is important, perhaps each of us should purposely take some time to remember those who have given their lives in order for us to have these privileges and to enjoy our freedoms.