Photo Credit: Vjeran Pavic CC via Flicker

On Monday, May 30, Americans will celebrate Memorial Day. The Federal holiday that is observed annually on the last Monday of the month is highly anticipated by all, for various reasons. To students, it signifies the end of the school year and the start of a long lazy summer break. For adults, the holiday is a reminder to firm up vacation plans and host barbecue parties.

What gets overlooked in all this excitement is the real purpose of the holiday, which is to honor and remember the brave men and women of the United States Armed Forces who sacrificed their lives to protect and defend our right to freedom. Though the two often get mixed up, Memorial Day is different from Veterans Day, which is celebrated to honor all living veterans for their sacrifices and contributions.

The holiday was first observed as “Decoration Day” on May 30, 1868, by General Logan, the National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. He believed that a day to commemorate the country’s fallen heroes would help unite citizens still recovering from the American Civil War waged between the Northern and Southern States from 1861-1865. Logan and 5,000 other participants celebrated the occasion by placing flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Photo Credit:

By 1890, Decoration Day had become a fixture on the calendar in all Northern States. The Southern States, however, declined to join and instead, selected a different day to honor their Civil War heroes. It was only after World War I when the holiday was extended to honor all dead military personnel that Decoration Day began to be celebrated nationally. Though the name "Memorial Day" began to surface as early as 1882, it did not become popular until after World War II and was not declared official by Federal law, until 1967.

The tradition of wearing red poppies on this day began in 1915 when American professor Moina Michael sold a few to her friends and co-workers to raise money for service persons in need. Madam Guerin, a French woman visiting the US loved the idea so much that she adopted it in her home country to raise money for war orphaned children and widowed women. In 1921, Guerin joined forces with the Franco-American Children's League and the poppy fundraising endeavor went national in both, France and America. Unfortunately, the alliance lasted only a year. Not one to give up, Guerin convinced the US-based Veterans of Foreign Affairs (VFW) to take up the cause. Today, VFW "Buddy Poppies" as they are now called are assembled by disabled, needy, and aging veterans, helping them earn a living.

Photo Credit: John T. McCutcheon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Memorial Day was declared an official national holiday in 1971. But instead of May 30, lawmakers decided that the celebrations should be held on the last Monday of May, to enable Americans to enjoy a three-day weekend. Though that has been a good idea, it has also resulted in the day losing some of its significance. Concerned that Americans would forget why the day is celebrated, in December 2000, former US President Clinton signed 'The National Moment of Remembrance Act.' The law requires all Americans to observe a minute of silence at 3:00 pm (local time) to honor the heroes that have sacrificed their lives for the safety and freedom of the country.

So this Memorial Day, break away from the fun activities at 3:00 pm, and take a minute or two to thank the brave men and women who are no longer around to enjoy the day with their families.

Happy Memorial Day!,