Memorial Day is a national holiday observed on the last Monday in May. It honors members of the United States military who died while serving our country.
Originally known as Decoration Day, it began in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971. Many Americans usually observe the occasion by visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings or participating in parades. It is the unofficial start of the summer season!
The Civil War ended in 1865 and claimed more lives than any conflict in U.S. history. It resulted in the establishment of our first national cemeteries.
One of the first Memorial Day celebrations was held by a group of freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, less than a month after the confederacy surrendered in 1865.
In 1966, the federal government declared Waterloo, New York as the official birthplace of Memorial Day. It was chosen because every year since 1866, it has hosted a community-wide event while businesses stayed closed and residents decorated soldiers’ graves with flowers and flags. Many Northern states followed in this tradition, but Southern states honored their dead on separate days until after World War I. Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and some parts of South Carolina still practice Confederate Memorial Day in April.
The holiday originally honored only those lost in the Civil War. But after World War I, it evolved to include that war, and now commemorates veterans taken by World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Cities and towns across America usually celebrate by holding parades including military personnel and veterans organizations. The largest of these take place in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C.
One of the most moving tributes on Memorial Day is the laying of the wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. The cemetery is on the banks of the Potomac River directly opposite Washington, D.C. This has been a tradition for 152 years, beginning in 1868. It serves as a stark reminder of the beauty and brevity of life.
In San Diego, Memorial Day will not look the same this year. But we can still barbecue and hoist a flag! Most importantly, we must remember the true meaning of the day and the military heroes it honors.