Why We Celebrate Memorial Day

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Memorial Day is observed annually on the last Monday of May (Credit: Karen Arnold/CCO/Publicdomainpictures.net)

Memorial Day, which will be celebrated on May 31, 2021, is one of the most important American holidays. Observed annually on the last Monday of May, it honors the brave men and women of the US Army, Navy, Marine Corps, National Guard, Air Force, and the Coast Guard who sacrificed their lives to defend America's freedom. Meanwhile, Veterans Day, which takes place each year on November 11, honors all veterans — living or dead—but mainly gives thanks to living veterans who served their country honorably during war or peacetime.

While the May commemoration is believed to have been started by local communities to honor their Civil War heroes in the late 1800s, the first official Memorial Day celebration is credited to Waterloo, New York. On May 5, 1866, the town’s residents organized a community-wide event to pay respects to perished soldiers by decorating their graves with flowers and flags. In 1868, General John A. Logan, the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, combined the various celebrations with Decoration Day — a national day of remembrance to be observed annually on May 30. He marked the occasion by placing American flags and flowers on the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

By 1890, all the Northern States had adopted Decoration Day. However, the Southern States continued to honor their dead soldiers on different days. It was only after the holiday was extended to include the American soldiers killed during World War I that they began celebrating the event. Many, however, continue to honor perished Confederate soldiers on Confederate Heroes Day as well. The date of the tribute varies — ranging from January 19 (Texas) to the fourth Monday in April (Alabama ) the final Monday in April (Mississippi) to June 3 (Louisiana).

In 1968, the US Congress declared what is now called Memorial Day a federal holiday. To allow Americans to enjoy a three-day weekend, the lawmakers also moved the date to the last Monday of May. The change, which went into effect in 1971, has resulted in the holiday losing some significance. Kids think of it as the beginning of summer, or the day when swimming pools open, while adults view it as an opportunity to host barbecue parties and shop for bargains.

Memorial Day parades are organized in cities across the United States (Credit: Coast Guard News/CC-BY-SA-2.0/Flickr)

To remind Americans of the holiday's importance, in December 2000, former US President Bill Clinton signed the National Moment of Remembrance Act. The law urges Americans to observe a minute of silence at 3:00 pm (local time) to honor the heroes who have sacrificed their lives for the safety and freedom of our country. This Memorial Day, be sure to take a minute or two to honor all the brave men and women who are no longer around to enjoy the three-day weekend with their families.

Happy Memorial Day!

Resources: History.com, Wikipedia.org

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