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Five Things You Need to Know About Memorial Day

From the holiday's founding to efforts to end the three-day weekend, learn more about Memorial Day.

Today, Memorial Day, is one of America’s most solemn observances. We honor the men and women who died serving and defending our country—unlike Veterans Day, the day to honor all veterans.

Amid the parades, 21-gun salutes and long weekend trips, how much do you know the holiday? Here are five Memorial Day facts.

1. The sheer carnage of the Civil War, America’s deadliest war, inspired Memorial Day as a way to honor the war dead. The observances originally were called Decoration Day because thankful Americans decorated and cared for soldiers’ graves. “Memorial Day” usage began appearing in 1882, but “Decoration Day” was common until post-World War II. Congress officially changed the name in 1967.

2. Keep noon and 3 p.m. local time in mind today. At noon, all flags lowered to half-staff should be raised completely for the remainder of the day. And at 3 p.m., a National Moment of Remembrance takes place. President Bill Clinton started the tradition in 2000.

3. On that first national Decoration Day in 1868, 5,000 citizens decorated 20,000 Civil War soldiers’ graves—both Union and Confederate—in Arlington Cemetery. But the show of solidarity did not last. Southern states protested what they saw as a holiday primarily honoring Union soldiers.

Many Southern states created their own observances on separate days, and did not rejoin the Memorial Day traditions until post-World War I, when the day evolved to honor the dead who served in all wars.

4. Not content to simply observe the holiday, several towns squabbled about which could lay claim to founding Memorial/Decoration Day. Historical accounts say women in the Confederate states decorated soldiers’ graves before it ever became a national movement. A handful of towns nationwide argued they were the first to mark Memorial Day. 

President Lyndon B. Johnson (tried to) put the issue to rest in 1966 by declaring Waterloo, NY, the birthplace of Memorial Day. Waterloo won out because it had first marked Memorial Day on May 5, 1866, and since made it an annual community observance.

5. Enjoying the three-day weekend with a trip to the Shore, backyard barbecue or other fun pursuits? Some critics wish you wouldn’t. Ever since Congress moved Memorial Day to the last Monday in May, creating a three-day weekend, critics blame the change with removing the solemnity and original purpose from the day. Hawaiian Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) has tried since 1987 to get Congress to move Memorial Day back to May 30.


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