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Thursday, May 26, 2011

What is Memorial Day and why do we Celebrate it

Memorial Day in the 21st century has come to mean a day off from work, but the holiday is deserving of this nation's respect in ways more important than simply grilling hot dogs and watching sports.

Why do Americans celebrate Memorial Day? To honor Americans who have died in the wars that have been fought to preserve their beliefs.

Many confuse Memorial Day and Veterans Day. While Veterans Day does honor the memory of those who have died in service to their country, it is also a day set aside to honor those still alive who have fought in U.S. wars. Memorial Day is specifically set aside to honor the memory of those who paid the ultimate price.

It originally began as a day to recognize those who died in the single bloodiest war in American history: the Civil War. The holiday was originally known as Decoration Day. According to, it is nearly impossible to pinpoint the exact day that Decoration Day came into existence; several dozen cities have staked a claim to being the first to officially celebrate it. Decoration Day got its name from the efforts of southern women to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers not long after the end of the Civil War.

The Encyclopedia Britannica states that Columbus, Mo., was one of the first southern cities to formally observe the day as a remembrance for both Confederate and Union soldiers. Nevertheless, a congressional proclamation in 1966 officially sanctioned Waterloo, N.Y., as the birthplace of Memorial Day.

Decoration Day had been officially changed to Memorial Day almost exactly a century earlier. The day of remembrance remained a day specifically set aside for those who had died during the Civil War until after World War I. At that point, it was made to include all American soldiers who died in conflicts.

According to, it was not until 1971 that the last Monday in May was set aside as Memorial Day and declared a national holiday.

Despite this, some southern towns still set aside a separate day of observance just for Confederate soldiers who died during the Civil War. The actual manner of observance has gone with the wind over the last few decades. The impetus for the holiday, the decoration of graves, is mostly done with small American flags if at all.

Many cities, especially those in the south, used to hold extravagant parades, but even that most traditional manner of celebration is rarely seen today. Instead, Memorial Day is now observed with picnics and baseball games.

For the average American, Memorial Day has become a day to observe as the kickoff to the summer holiday season rather than a day to celebrate the lives and deaths of the soldiers whose sacrifices have made it possible for the Indy 500 and beach picnics to exist.