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Take a moment to learn the true meaning of Memorial Day. It’s important to recognize the difference between this federal holiday and Veterans Day (especially to vets). Also, learn why it was originally called Decoration Day, why the red poppy is a symbol, and when to fly the flag.
When Is Memorial Day 2023?
This U.S. federal holiday is observed on the last Monday of May to honor the men and women who have died while serving in the military. It was formerly known as Decoration Day.
In 2023, Memorial Day will be observed on Monday, May 29.
Memorial Day Dates
Monday, May 29
Monday, May 27
Monday, May 26
Monday, May 25
What’s the Difference Between Memorial Day and Veterans Day?
On both Memorial Day and Veterans Day, it’s customary to spend time remembering and honoring the countless veterans who have served the United States throughout the country’s history. However, there is a distinction between the two holidays:
Memorial Day commemorates the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces, particularly those who died in battle or as a result of wounds sustained in battle. In other words, the purpose of Memorial Day is to memorialize the veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
You’ll find that some veterans find it dismaying when they are thanked on this day. It’s a time remembering those who lost their lives and could not come home. We might consider how we can support and safeguard their grieving families and loved ones who are left behind, as well as reflecting on why we—the living—have the luxury and freedom that we enjoy today.
Veterans Day is the day set aside to thank and honor ALL who served in the United States Armed Forces—in wartime or peacetime—regardless of whether they died or survived. Veterans Day is always observed officially on November 11, regardless of the day of the week on which it falls. Read more about Veterans Day.
Flying Old Glory
Flag etiquette on Memorial Day is unique. At sunrise, flags are to be raised to full staff briskly, then lowered to half staff position where they will remain until noon. See guidelines for flying the American Flag.
Traditionally, on Memorial Day (U.S.), volunteers often place small American flags on each grave site at national cemeteries. A national moment of remembrance takes place at 3:00 p.m. local time. Consider visiting a local cemetery to place flags; many organizations would be grateful for volunteers. Contact your local American Legion post, Daughters of the American Revolution, or Boy or Girl Scouts troops.
Memorial Day Facts and History
The custom of honoring ancestors by cleaning cemeteries and decorating graves is an ancient and worldwide tradition. In early rural America, it was usually performed in summer and was an occasion for family reunions and picnics.
The ritual of visiting family graves and memorials was never a morbid tradition. Rather, it was an annual act of remembrance, as well as a chance to clean and decorate family memorials. Often, families would picnic as well; cemeteries were often the only open green spaces in crowded cities.
Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day, starting with the American Civil War. It’s believed that the tradition of honoring the dead was inspired by the way Southern states decorated the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers with flowers, wreaths, and flags.
Several cities and towns across the country lay claim as the first to observe Decoration Day. On May 5, 1866, Waterloo, New York, hosted their own community-wide event that, in 1966, led to President Lyndon Johnson declaring the town as the birthplace of Decoration Day.
Meanwhile, on May 5, 1868, inspired by the suggestion of veteran, Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (a fraternal organization of Union Civil War veterans), issued General Order No. 11, designating the 30th of May as an annual day of remembrance. The idea caught on.
With the Civil War, America’s need to honor its military dead became prominent as monuments were raised and ceremonies centering on the decoration of soldiers’ graves were held in towns and cities throughout the nation.
After World War I, Decoration Day included all fallen soldiers, not just those from the Civil War, and the term “Memorial Day” started being used. By World War II, Memorial Day became the term in more common usage across different states adopting resolutions to make it an official holiday.
Finally, in 1971, Memorial Day became a national holiday by an act of Congress. When the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act took effect in 1971, a few federal holidays were moved to Monday to create three-day weekends; Memorial Day was set to occur on the last Monday in May.
Since it all started with the Civil War, you might want to brush up on your knowledge of this event by visiting the Library of Congress Civil War collection, which includes more than a thousand photographs from the time.
Why Is The Poppy A Symbol of Memorial Day?
In the war-torn battlefields of Europe, the common red field poppy (Papaver rhoeas) was one of the first plants to reappear. Its seeds scattered in the wind and sat dormant in the ground, only germinating when the ground was disturbed—as it was by the very brutal fighting of World War 1.
John McCrae, a Canadian soldier and physician, witnessed the war first hand and was inspired to write the now-famous poem “In Flanders Fields” in 1915. (See below for the poem.) He saw the poppies scattered throughout the battlefield surrounding his artillery position in Belgium.
The Poppy Lady
In November 1918, days before the official end of the war, an American professor named Moina Michael wrote her own poem, “We Shall Keep the Faith,” which was inspired by McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.” In her poem (also shown below), she mentioned wearing the “poppy red” to honor the dead, and with that, the tradition of adorning one’s clothing with a single red poppy in remembrance of those killed in the Great War was born. Moina herself came to be known—and honored—as “The Poppy Lady.”
The Symbol Spreads Abroad
The wearing of the poppy was traditionally done on Memorial Day in the United States, but the symbolism has evolved to encompass all veterans living and deceased, so poppies may be worn on Veterans Day as well. Not long after the custom began, it was adopted by other Allied nations, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, where it is still popular today. In these countries, the poppy is worn on Remembrance Day (November 11).
Today, poppies are not only a symbol of loss of life, but also of recovery and new life, especially in support of the servicemen who survived the war but suffered from physical and psychological injuries long after it ended.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
“We Shall Keep the Faith”
by Moina Michael, November 1918
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
Memorial Day Weekend: The Unofficial Start of Summer
Memorial Day tends to mark the unofficial start of summer for many Americans (though the season really begins with the Summer Solstice in mid-June).
Memorial Day Recipes
On Memorial Day weekend, we also enjoy the extra time spent with family and friends, sharing a meal. If you’re planning a backyard barbecue or a picnic, here are some of our favorite recipes:
Super Summer Burger. Photo by Becky Luigart-Stayner.
Thank You to the Fallen
From everyone here at The Old Farmer’s Almanac, we would like say thank you to those men and women who paid the ultimate price. We will always remember the sacrifices of our nation’s heroes. We are deeply grateful.
In remembering the fallen, we also honor their loved ones: spouses, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, friends. There aren’t proper words, but we do live in gratitude each and every day for the precious gift that they have given to us.
How do you honor the fallen on Memorial Day? We welcome reading about your traditions and memories.