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Tradition, Commemoration and Celebration: How Memorial Day Is Celebrated Today

Memorial Day parade
AP Photo/Seth Wenig
By Sally Greene

On the last Monday in May, the United States celebrates a holiday known as Memorial Day. This federal holiday is held in remembrance for the people who have died serving in the country’s armed forces, not to be confused with Veteran’s Day which is in celebration of all veterans. Memorial Day originated after the Civil War and was then known as Decoration Day. The first Memorial Day was observed on May 30th, 1868 where the nation began to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers after the war. While the traditions were once split between the Union and Confederacy, by the 20th century the holiday had merged to honor all those who had fought and died for the country. This was the beginning of Memorial Day as we know it today.

There are many longstanding traditions that Americans commemorate on this holiday, such as the decorating of fallen soldiers’ gravestones. In the modern era, it is common to see the graves adorned with American flags and flowers. The remembrance poppy became a popular decoration and symbol of commemoration for military personnel who have died in World War I, which was inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields”. Today poppies are still used to help celebrate Memorial Day.

Also on this holiday, the American flag is raised to the top of its pole then lowered to the half-staffed position, where it remains until noon and is raised again for the rest of the day. This action is done to represent respect, mourning, or a salute and is often done for fallen soldiers. The flag is lowered half-staffed on Memorial Day in memory of the millions of men and women who have given their lives to the service of the country. It is then raised to the top at noon to symbolize the rest of the country’s willingness to rise up and continue to fight for liberty and justice, not letting the soldiers’ sacrifices be in vain. It commemorates the actions of the fallen military personnel, while also celebrating their service.

Another tradition that is followed on this day is the holding of parades. Big cities and towns in different states all across the country host Memorial Day parades for citizens to come watch. Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago, and Gettysburg are some cities that host the biggest and most popular parades on this day, though it isn’t uncommon for smaller cities and towns to hold their own ones as well. Usually these incorporate other soldiers, veterans, and other organizations that have to do with the United States armed forces.

While Memorial Day is first and foremost held to commemorate fallen soldiers, it is also a day that unofficially marks the beginning of summer, while Labor Day marks the end. For many kids and teenagers, it starts the beginning of a long summer vacation. It is common for many to celebrate this day with parties and cookouts too because of this fact, and Memorial Day weekend is known as a very popular getaway weekend. Despite the increased focus on leisure for the last weekend in May, this federal holiday remains an important day of remembrance and tradition.