While many Americans simply consider Memorial Day the unofficial start to summer, the history of the holiday goes much deeper.
As a country, the United States has been celebrating Memorial Day in some form for almost 150 years, though it used to go by a different name: Decoration Day.
On the inaugural Decoration Day, on May 30th, 1868, families and loved ones of soldiers who had served in the Civil War brought flowers, wreaths, and notes to the 20,000 graves of fallen soldiers in Virginia’s renowned Arlington Cemetery in their honor. Five thousand individuals were present at the first Decoration Day, demonstrative of the magnitude of lives (more than 600,000) lost during the War. President James Garfield marked the ceremony with an address, stating:
“We know not one promise these men made, not one word they spoke, but we do know…[that] for the love of country, they accepted death, and made immortal their patriotism and virtue.”
Five years later, in 1873, New York became the first state to designate Decoration Day a holiday. Following World War I, in 1938, Decoration Day evolved into Memorial Day, and was officially recognized as a federal holiday. Though it was observed on May 30th for years, in the late 1960s, Congress passed a law declaring it the last Monday in May, so as to create a three-day weekend.
The solemn nature of the holiday’s origins may seem incongruent with the festive barbecues we celebrate with today, but there actually are a number of enjoyable ways to reflect on the true meaning of Memorial Day and honor the holiday’s origins. Read on for a few of our favorite ways to honor the day while still leaning into the modern traditions that everyone looks forward to.
If you have a barbecue, why not…make it charitable?
Barbecues are a cornerstone of American culture, so we’re certainly not going to tell you not to host one in exchange for a day of somber observance. To add a thoughtful twist to your event, though, why not ask friends who offer to contribute food or drink to donate to a charity that serves our Veterans? One of our favorites is Headstrong, an organization that provides free mental healthcare to individuals suffering from PTSD, anxiety, or other conflict-related mental health stressors. And while we’re on the subject of events, if you happen to be having a Memorial Day wedding, you can always include a link to donate to Veteran-related charities in lieu of gifts into your registry.
If you have kids, have them write letters to soldiers
For those with little ones in their lives, Memorial Day is a fantastic opportunity for education. Teach your children about the holiday and remind them of the importance of giving back by gathering a group of their friends together to write letters to soldiers. There are countless organizations who facilitate this service, but Operation Gratitude, which serves both veterans and deployed troops, among other military-adjacent servicepeople, is a favorite of ours. They’ll take a moment away from screens, flex their penmanship skills, and make someone’s day. Win, win, win.
If you’re buying spring flowers, make them Memorial Day poppies
Wearing a poppy on Memorial Day (or Europe and the Commonwealth’s November equivalent, Remembrance Day), has been a means of honoring fallen soldiers since 1918, when Canadian Lieutenant John McCrae wrote a poem about the poppies that bloomed on the battlefields where Allied soldiers fought for their countries during World War I. Go beyond pinning a poppy to your clothes and decorate your house with a bouquet of perennial poppies; a gorgeous gesture both visually and in spirit.
If you’re relaxing at home, tune into the Memorial Day concert
No plans? No problem. Each year, PBS hosts a concert in honor of the holiday featuring some of the nation’s biggest stars, and it’s all available to stream online. 2021’s performers included musical icon Gladys Knight, Broadway star Sara Bareilles, and, of course, The National Symphony Orchestra. This year’s concert will air on PBS on Sunday, May 29th, and will be streaming live HERE.
If you take up any of our suggestions for Memorial Day reflection, tag us using #casadesuna.