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Memorial Day: A Misunderstood Federal Holiday

People celebrate Memorial Day the last Monday in May, but few know the history of the federal holiday.

By Margaret MinnicksPublished 5 years ago Updated 2 years ago 4 min read

People have no problem celebrating Memorial Day, which falls on the last Monday in May every year. If you ask ten people what the federal holiday is all about, sadly nine of them will give you the wrong answer, incomplete answers, or no answer at all. Let's set the record straight with the right answers about Memorial Day.

Memorial Day is a federal holiday set aside to honor men and women who died or were wounded while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Memorial Day is not the federal holiday set aside to honor ALL veterans. There is another federal holiday set aside for that purpose.

History of Memorial Day

American Flags (Photo ChrisHuth via Pixabay)

The name of the holiday was originally known as Decoration Day. It came about long after the Civil War ended in 1865. The war claimed more lives than any other war. Because so many people were killed, it was a requirement to provide the first national cemeteries to bury them.

Memorial Day was first called Decoration Day in the late 1860s because Americans in various cities began decorating the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers and flags. They also paid tribute to them by reciting prayers.

May 30 was officially chosen as the date of Decoration Day because it wasn't the anniversary of any other battle. On that particular date in 1868, 5,000 people decorated the graves of the 20,000 soldiers buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The name of the day honoring those who died in the Civil War gradually stopped being called Decoration Day and became known as Memorial Day. It still included tributes to those who lost their lives in the Civil War, but it also included tributes to those who died in all the United States wars.

In 1968, the United States Congress passed a law that Memorial Day would be changed from May 30 to the last Monday in May no matter what date the day falls on. The change went into effect in 1971 so federal employees could have a three-day weekend.

Memorial Day Today

Graves of fallen soldiers (Photo via

Today, Americans observe Memorial Day and still pay tribute to those who died in the Civil War, and all wars. However, they take it to another level by paying tributes to all relatives who have died even though they didn't die or serve in any branch of the military. Families visit cemeteries of dead relatives and decorate their graves. Every year on Memorial Day, 3:00 p.m. is a designated time for a national moment of remembrance.

Even though summer doesn't start until June 21, some people consider Memorial Day as the unofficial beginning of summer. That seems to be ideal because it is a three-day weekend when workers are off from work, and schools are closed. Needless to say, beaches are usually crowded during the Memorial Day weekend.

Memorial Day vs. Veterans Day

Memorial Day is often confused with Veterans Day, another patriotic holiday. The day never changes for Memorial Day, but the date changes from year to year. Veterans Day is always on November 11 no matter what day of the week it falls on. In other words, Memorial Day doesn't have a set date for people to celebrate it. However, Veterans Day does have a set date.

There are other differences between the two patriotic days. Memorial Day started out with a celebration only for those who died in the Civil War. Then it was changed to celebrate those who died in all wars. Today, people celebrate all relatives who died even if they never went to war or served in any branch of the military.

Like Memorial Day, Veterans Day originally had another name. It was originally known as Armistice Day. The purpose was to observe annually on November 11 those who served in the United States Armed Forces. Armistice Day was renamed Veterans Day in 1954. Like Memorial Day, Veterans Day is an official federal holiday.

Flag on Veterans Day (Photo via Public Domain Pictures)

Both Memorial Day and Veterans Day are United States federal holidays. People get the day off from work to celebrate military personnel for different reasons.

Both of the holidays started out with different names. Wreaths are placed on the Tombs of Unknown Soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery on both holidays. The American flag is a central part of Memorial Day and Veterans Day observances when they are celebrated with parties and parades.


About the Creator

Margaret Minnicks

Margaret Minnicks shares articles with readers all over the world. Topics include celebrities, royal family, movies, television, foods, drinks, health issues, and other interesting things. Thanks in advance for TIPS that are sent my way.

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