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9 Facts You Probably Don’t Know About Memorial Day

The unofficial start of summer is about more than hot dogs, beer and mattress sales


spinner image a young boy holds up miniature american flags at a military parade
Photo: Alamy

Memorial Day signifies the unofficial start of summer. Community pools open for the season. Patio furniture is hosed down. News of summer sales blast through the media. Across the country there are parades, backyard barbecues and picnics. But Memorial Day is so much more than hot dogs, beer and mattress sales.  

The following are nine facts you may not know about how and why we observe Memorial Day.

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1. Originally known as Decoration Day

Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day. It was established on May 5, 1868, by Gen. John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic to honor the fallen soldiers of the Civil War. It was designated to fall on May 30, when flowers are in bloom. Fellow soldiers and family would decorate the graves of their comrades with flowers and flags. Some families would even hold picnics on the graves of their beloved ones. Today, most of us have parties in our backyards rather than at cemeteries, but the true meaning of this day cannot be forgotten.

2. The symbolism of the red poppy

In 1915, during World War I, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae was overcome with sorrow when he saw red poppies blooming all over Europe. Seeing a cluster of poppies blanketing Flanders Field in Belgium inspired McCrae to write the famous poem “In Flanders Fields.” This moving poem is written from the point of view of those buried beneath the soil. Overcome with emotion after reading McCrae’s poem, teacher and YMCA overseas secretary Moina Michael started the tradition of wearing a silk or paper poppy in honor of fallen American soldiers. Because of Moina, the red poppy became the symbol of remembrance in 1920. To this day, you can purchase a red poppy through various organizations. Your donation will help veterans programs throughout the nation.

3. Changes made after World War I

After WWI, Memorial Day was expanded to honor all soldiers who have died in American wars. In 1971, the date became known as Memorial Day. The holiday moved to the last Monday in May by the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which was passed to create a three-day weekend for federal employees. To this day, veterans groups are worried, rightfully so, that Americans associate the holiday with the first long weekend of summer and not for its intended purpose to honor the fallen soldiers.

4. Flags at half staff

Our nation’s flag is raised to half staff from sunrise until noon and then lifted to full staff to signify hope and to honor all our country’s war heroes.

5. The birthplace of Memorial Day

In 1966, President Johnson proclaimed Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day. But as so often happens, there is controversy over this matter. As many as 25 towns claim to be the birthplace; most are located in the South, where the majority of the war dead are buried.

6. Laying wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery

Each year a small American flag is placed on every grave. The president or vice president lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Thus was born the tradition of local businesses placing miniature flags throughout neighborhoods across America.   

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7. The tradition of the Indianapolis 500

For car racing fans, Memorial Day also includes watching the Indy 500. The first full year of racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway started in 1910. Decoration Day was chosen because farmers took a break in late May after baling hay.

8. Thank a veteran

While Memorial Day is a day to honor those soldiers who have died for our country, it’s also a wonderful day to thank all veterans. A simple “Thank you for your service” goes a long way in making a veteran feel appreciated. If you don’t know a veteran, you can always write a letter to one.  

9. A moment of silence

In December 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act. At 3 p.m. local time, Americans are asked to take a minute of silence to remember those who have died in military service. So, wherever you are, put down your drink, set aside your plate of food and take time to honor those soldiers who have given their lives. Because of them, we continue to enjoy these celebrations with family and friends.

Share your experience: What Memorial Day traditions do you practice? Let us know in the comments below.

This article was first published in the new AARP Experience Counts newsletter. Got a positive attitude, a fierce independent streak, and a belief that anything is possible when you work to achieve it? Savor the stories, share the values, and put a smile on your face by subscribing here to AARP Experience Counts, delivered to your inbox on the first and third Thursday of each month.

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