Memorial Day or Decoration Day is a Federal holiday in the United States for remembering the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces. The holiday is currently observed every year on the last Monday of May. The holiday was previously held on May 30 from 1868 to 1970. It marks the unofficial start of the summer vacation season, while Labor Day marks its end.
Memorial Day is not to be confused with Veterans Day—Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving our country in the military, whereas Veterans Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans.
Soldiers’ graves were decorated in the U.S. before and during the American Civil War. Many people visit cemeteries and memorials, particularly to honor those who have died in military service. Many volunteers place an American flag on each grave in national cemeteries.
The practice of decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers is an ancient custom. In 1915, following the Second Battle of Ypres, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a physician with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, wrote the poem, “In Flanders Fields”. Its opening lines refer to the fields of poppies that grew among the soldiers’ graves in Flanders.
In 1918, inspired by the poem, YWCA worker Moina Michael attended a YWCA Overseas War Secretaries’ conference wearing a silk poppy pinned to her coat and distributed over two dozen more to others present. In 1920, the National American Legion adopted it as their official symbol of remembrance.
The preferred name for the holiday gradually changed from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day,” which was first used in 1882. Memorial Day did not become the more common name until after World War II, and was not declared the official name by Federal law until 1967. On June 28, 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the Federal level in 1971.