For many Americans, Memorial Day means picnics and barbeques. It can also signify the unofficial start of the summer, and if you subscribe to those “rules,” the beginning of the season when you can wear white clothing again.
It also means a day off from work for some people — but not everyone. Who, exactly, does get to play hooky and still get paid for it? How did the holiday come to be, and what’s it all about? Here’s what you should know.
Because Memorial Day is a federal holiday, non-essential government workers have the day off. Institutions including the U.S. Postal Service, New York Stock Exchange, Nasdaq, the courts and banks are closed. Many schools and private businesses are closed as well.
However, not everyone has the holiday off. According to a study by Bloomberg BNA, 40% of organizations require some employees to work on Memorial Day, including public safety and security employees, as well as many other types of employees. Plenty of retail stores, restaurants and grocery stores are open as well, meaning their employees must come to work, too.
Originally known as Decoration Day, acknowledging the tradition of decorating graves with flowers and flags, Memorial Day began as a holiday meant to honor the fallen Union soldiers who fought in the Civil War. There’s some debate as to which community was the first to come up with and celebrate the holiday. However, in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation declaring Waterloo, New York, the town in which the then-Decoration Day was originally born in 1866.
General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic called for the observance to become a national holiday on May 30, 1868. James Garfield, then an Ohio congressman, spoke at Arlington National Cemetery, where thousands of Americans participated in the celebration and honored soldiers who had died in the Civil War by decorating their graves. New York became the first state to declare it a holiday in 1873, although many states and cities observed it.
After World War I, the holiday was used to honor all soldiers who had died while on duty. The holiday was renamed Memorial Day after World War II.
In 1971, the holiday was moved to the last Monday in May as a result of the Uniform Holidays Bill, which was meant to discourage absenteeism by observing many federal holidays on Mondays to give workers three-day weekends. This was controversial; some veterans groups believed that moving the holiday would cause people to forget about its real purpose of honoring the soldiers who had died while serving their country.
Sure, hitting a local park for a picnic or barbeque with family and friends is fun. The weather is finally nice again (hopefully), and if you’re lucky, you have the entire day to just relax and be carefree. But if you’re looking for an alternative (maybe even one that hearkens back to the true purpose of and meaning behind Memorial Day), try one or more of these ideas.
Memorial Day is about honoring our country’s fallen heroes who selflessly gave back to their country. Why not do something selfless of your own by volunteering to help those who are less fortunate or doing something that betters the community (or world) for everyone? Whether it’s dishing out food at a soup kitchen, participating in a trash cleanup at a park or beach, organizing a clothing or food drive for the homeless, visiting children or the elderly at the hospital or even just mowing your neighbor’s lawn, these small gestures can have a big impact.
Did you know about the history of Memorial Day and what it really means until now? Despite the fact that many people observe the holiday, some don’t know its origins. Educate others so they can appreciate its significance and honor the sacrifices of the nation’s military. You might talk to your kids or children you know, suggest organizing a display at your local library or even just post tidbits and facts on your social media accounts.
While the holiday is meant to recognize the military members who died while on active duty, it’s also important to acknowledge and support veterans and those who are currently serving in the armed forces. You might collect items for care packages and gifts for active-duty military and send them through organizations such as Operation Gratitude and Support Our Troops. You could also write letters to the troops and send them through the same organizations. (NB: It’s not possible to send these items directly, and you should look up the guidelines on the organizations’ websites first.)
Symbolic gestures are an important way of remembering the significance of Memorial Day. For example, you could observe the National Moment of Rememberance, pausing for one minute of silence at 3:00 pm to think about those who have died in military service. This was first established by Congress in 2000.
Another practice is wearing a red poppy. This tradition was inspired by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, who wrote the poem “In Flanders Field” after seeing red poppies brightening a dark landscape while serving as a brigade surgeon in World War I. After reading the poem in Ladies’ Home Journal, Moina Michael advocated using the poppy as a symbol to recognize and remember people who had died in service to the country.
Finally, if you have a flag at your home or place of work, fly it at half-staff until noon, and then raise it.
These are just a few ideas for how to celebrate the holiday. You might also participate in a community event — many towns and cities have local parades, and, of course, the National Memorial Day Parade takes place annually in Washington, D.C — or visit memorials and cemeteries where late military members are buried.
Until 1970, Memorial Day was always observed on May 30th. Today, however, the holiday is observed on the last Monday of May. This year (2020), it falls on May 25th. Below are the dates for the next five years.
2021: May 31
2022: May 30
2023: May 29
2024: May 27
2025: May 26