The real meaning behind Memorial Day and its customs

All too often around Memorial Day we tend to forget exactly why the holiday was created: to honor those American men and women who died during combat.

The holiday, instituted in 1866 in the wake of the Civil War, was first known as Decoration Day. It was set aside to remember both Union and Confederate soldiers alike.

It’s crazy to imagine, but during the Civil War we lost more Americans (620,000) than we did in both World Wars combined (521,000).

By the 1880’s, the holiday came to be known officially as Memorial Day. A federal mandate in 1971 set the observance on the last Monday of May.

This ensured long weekends for those of us lucky to have the day off to grill, travel, visit with friends and family, and do whatever else we want on Memorial Day.

Given that it’s also the traditional beginning of the summer season, there seems to be some confusion by the general public over what the holiday honors.

Memorial Day is for the American troops who didn’t get to come back home and drink a beer at a homecoming party or retire from their branch of service quietly.

They died in the field of combat and instead returned home under solemn circumstances, inside flag-draped coffins.

Veteran’s Day and Armed Forces Day, by contrast, both honor those among us who have served or are still serving in the military. On those days — and of course not just those days — we reach out to vets and current military members and thank them for wearing the uniform and facing grave danger.

Memorial Day is reserved for those who can’t return a smile or a salute, not to mention the families and friends who have been left behind.

Back in December 2000, President Bill Clinton signed into law the National Moment of Remembrance Act saying that Americans should pause at 3 p.m. each Memorial Day and take a moment to remember the fallen.

This usually comes right when some of us are in the depths of a food coma. Set a reminder on your smartphone if you want to take a minute to think about what, and who, we have lost.

Fly your American flags at half-staff until noon on Monday.


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