Where did Memorial Day start and why do Americans celebrate it?

On Monday 29 May, Americans honour those who have died while serving in the nation's military 

Chelsea Ritschel
New York
Monday 29 May 2023 12:45 BST
Why Americans celebrate Memorial Day
Why Americans celebrate Memorial Day

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Americans are celebrating Memorial Day on Monday 29 May, in honour of those who have lost their lives serving in the US military.

The holiday, which also marks the unofficial start to summer, is observed annually on the last Monday of May, with most Americans receiving the day off from work.

The nation commemorates the holiday with a service at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, with the president typically laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Across the country, people wear red poppies in tribute to the fallen soldiers and participate in parades.

This is everything you need to know about Memorial Day:

When did it become a Federal Holiday?

Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day, was first celebrated after the Civil War. To mark the date, chosen because flowers would be in bloom, people left flowers on the graves of soldiers who had died fighting.

The day didn’t become a federal holiday, a holiday established by the government, until 1971.

The holiday, which is one of 11 annual federal holidays in the US, is marked with a national moment of remembrance at 3pm.

Where did Memorial Day begin?

After the Civil War, numerous cities, towns and communities held ceremonies of remembrance to fallen soldiers.

One of the first tributes is believed to have occurred in Columbus, Mississippi, in 1866, when women decorated the graves of Confederate soldiers as well as those of Union soldiers nearby, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

However, the VA writes that “approximately 25 places have been named in connection with the origin of Memorial Day, many of them in the South where most of the war dead were buried”.

Cities in the North have also claimed the title of having been the birthplace of the first Memorial Day.

Despite a lack of concrete origin, the federal government and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day in 1966, according to History.com.

Where was the first large observance of Memorial Day?

In 1868, the first national celebration of Memorial Day took place at Arlington National Cemetery.

To honour the fallen, American flags were placed on the graves of the soldiers. It is reported that nearly 5,000 people attended the first observance.

After World War I, it was decided that Memorial Day would honour all those who have died in American wars.

Now, tradition sees small American flags placed near all of the graves in Arlington Cemetery, as well as large parades in New York City, Chicago, and Washington DC.

Flags are flown at half-staff across the country.

What is the purpose of Memorial Day?

At its centre, the purpose of Memorial Day is to honour and remember those who have died fighting for the country

In recent years, the holiday has also become a day to spend time with loved ones and enjoy the beginning of warmer weather.

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