Memorial Day: Honoring those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice

Memorial Day is a U.S. federal holiday established with the intent of honoring those military men and women who have died in service to our nation.  Originally called Decoration Day, Memorial Day did not become an officially observed federal holiday until 1967.  Decoration Day was first observed just after the Civil War in 1866 as a way to honor fallen Union soldiers.  Though several cities and towns were known to celebrate the day, most historians credit Waterloo, New York’s May 5, 1866 celebration as the first observance.

In 1868,General John A. Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, proclaimed May 30 as Memorial Day.   Flowers were placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.  By 1890 all of the northern states officially recognized the holiday, however most of the southern states refused, still harboring resentment for the events of the Civil War.  To this day many southern states still celebrate an additional day for honoring those who died in the Confederate war.

In 1968 the U.S. Congress changed Memorial Day from May 30 to the last Monday in May as part of the Uniform Holidays Bill.  This created a three-day weekend for Memorial Day and several other national holidays.  By doing so this national day of remembrance has become for many a day to spend time with friends and family, and is sometimes viewed as kick-off for the summer holidays.  There are some supporters of returning the holiday to May 30 so that the emphasis can be refocused on the day’s original intent of paying respect to our fallen soldiers.

For those who observe the day’s focus, there are several traditions and activities associated with Memorial Day.  The VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) has traditionally accepted donations for red poppies, a custom first introduced in 1915 by Moina Michael who was inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields.”  Donations for the red poppies go to support service men and women.

The American flag plays an important role in our observation of Memorial Day.  Friends and family traditionally will place small American flags on the gravesites of military loved ones.  In some areas local service organizations will also be sure that military graves are properly adorned with flowers and flags.  It is also customary to fly the flag at half-staff from dawn until noon on this day.

There is also a national moment of remembrance that takes place at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day.  This custom was established in 2000 as a response to concerns that the true meaning of the holiday as a time to collectively mourn and pay respect to those who gave their life for our freedom had been lost amidst the excitement of the three-day weekend.

Local communities often will host parades or community picnics as a means of coming together to celebrate the lives and sacrifices of our service men and women.  Many families have their own traditions and observances for honoring their own loved ones who have served in the military. Many local service organizations and community groups provide opportunities for individuals to donate their time to helping plan and assisting in various Memorial Day events.

This year be sure to remember the true meaning behind our Memorial Day celebrations.  Take some time to reflect on the sacrifices our military personnel have made to protect each of our individual rights and freedoms.  Visit a local cemetery as a way to honor and pay respect to our fallen service men and women.

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