The Meaning of Memorial Day

This Memorial Day, take some time to remember the true meaning of this day.

Memorial Day weekend is regarded by many as the unofficial beginning of summer. With all that entails, it is easy to lose sight of the true meaning of the holiday. As you go about your weekend, please take time this Memorial Day to honor all of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country. Read on to learn more about the origin of the day, find ways to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and learn about the significance of the poppy as a symbol.

The Origins of Memorial Day

Memorial Day began as a day of remembrance for those who lost their lives fighting for the Union during the Civil War.

Originally known as Decoration Day, it was a time for people to visit cemeteries and place flowers or other memorials on the graves of the war dead—a day to remember ancestors, family members, and loved ones who gave the ultimate sacrifice. Gradually, the practice expanded, and following World War I, the day was officially named Memorial Day, made a National Holiday, and was dedicated to a honoring all Americans who perished in service to our country--particularly in combat. 

Over time, however, the meaning of the day has been forgotten by many people, and instead of being a day to honor and say thank you, it became just another three-day weekend. As the story goes, one weekend in May in the late 1990s, groups of schoolchildren touring Washington DC were asked if they knew what Memorial Day was for. Their answer? "That's the day the swimming pools open!" Thus the idea for a National Moment of Remembrance was born.

The National Moment of Remembrance Act was passed in 2000 as a way of helping honor and remember our fallen heroes. For one minute at 3 pm on each Memorial Day, we’re asked to stop everything to pay our respects to the men and women who died in service for our country, especially those who died in battle. That time of day was chosen because it is likely a time when Americans are most enjoying the freedom made possible by those brave men and women.

At 3 pm, local time, all across the country on May 30, people will wave flags, visit cemeteries, observe a moment of silence, or stop to tell their children what the meaning of the day is. Trains will blow their whistles. Individuals everywhere will pause for a moment of silence. Cars will drive with their headlights on. “Taps” will play throughout the nation.

Other Ways to Observe

Aside from the National Moment of Remembrance, what are some other ways to pay respect to the men and women who have given their lives in service to our country?

One way is by teaching the next generation what Memorial Day stands for—share with them the history of the day, and explain why we are able to enjoy so many of the wonderful things we are able to do because of those who sacrificed. It’s a serious message—but one that can be shared easily--and even while social distancing. Set up a vehicle parade, visit a military cemetery, write letters or send a card or picture to servicemen and women overseas. Investigate the history of some the great conflicts—check out Netflix, the History Channel, or the Discovery Channel, for example, for age appropriate programming to watch together. 

Another way to honor the memory of fallen soldiers is to take care of the veterans who remain behind. Consider a contribution or a donation of your time to one of the many wonderful nonprofits that support veterans and their families. Patronize businesses that make it a priority to hire and vets. Ask your local VA if you can send snacks, or games, or books, or other activities.

Finally, the Memorial Day Foundation offers the following suggestions for gestures of respect:

Wear a Memorial Day Button from the first of May until Memorial Day.
Visit cemeteries and place flags or flowers on the graves of our fallen heroes.
Fly the U.S. Flag at half-staff until noon. Memorial Day is a day of "National Mourning."
Attend religious or other observational services of your choice.
Visit memorials.
Renew a pledge to aid the spouses, orphans, and other family members of our fallen dead, and to aid the disabled veterans.

Source: The History Channel

The Significance of the Poppy

The red poppy was adopted as a reminder and commemoration of war dead following the publishing of the 1915 poem, “In Flanders Field.” 

The poem, told from the point of view of the fallen soldiers, was written by Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae, who was serving as a brigade surgeon for Allied forces. 

In the early spring of 1915, following the Second Battle of Ypres, McCrae was in Flanders (an area of Belgium) walking amidst the carnage tending to the wounded and the dead when he spotted a clump of bright red flowers rising from the churned and charred soil of the battlefield.

Struck by the contrast, moved by the hardy flower’s tenacity to grow in the harsh landscape, and mourning the loss of one of his close friends (Lt. Alexis Helmer, who had been one of the 87,000-plus Allied casualties during the battle), McCrae penned the poem, which was published in Punch magazine later that year. 

In 1918, Moina Michael, an American professor who had taken a leave of absence from her job to volunteer with the American YMCA Overseas War Secretaries organization, read “In Flanders Field” and was so was inspired by the poem that she published a poem of her own called "We Shall Keep the Faith,” and committed to always wearing a red poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those who fought and helped in the war. 

Michael began a campaign to make the poppy a nationwide symbol, crafting silk flowers and distributing them. Her perseverance and dedication paid off, and in 1920, the National American Legion designated the red poppy as the official national emblem of remembrance.

Similar efforts occurred around the globe, and today, millions of people in the U.S., the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Belgium, Australia, and New Zealand recognize the meaning of the hardy little red flower, pinning it to their lapels on their respective days of remembrance.

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