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The Traditions of Memorial Day

31 May 2018

Monday the 28th of May saw the USA celebrate Memorial Day, an annual American holiday which serves to honour the memory of the military men and women who died while serving in the US Armed Forces. Formerly known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day is held on the last Monday of May each year, and unofficially marks the start of the summer vacation season.

The former name for Memorial Day, 'Decoration Day', dates back to the 1800's, although the traditions associated with it date back to ancient times. The origins of the name 'Decoration Day' are somewhat self-explanatory; in honour of the deceased, loved ones would adorn fallen soldiers' gravesides with a multitude of aesthetically pleasing decorative items, such as flowers, wreaths and flags. The day began being referred to as the more catchall 'Memorial Day' as far back as the 1880's and grew far more common after World War II. The title was officially changed by Federal law in 1967, and it is by this name that the national holiday is commonly recognised today.

In modern times, Memorial Day is officially celebrated on the last Monday of each May, although this was not always the case. May 30th was the official day for the holiday up until the 1970's, no matter which day of the week this fell on, and the date was only officially changed to fall on a Monday in order to facilitate a longer holiday period - the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was passed in 1968, after which Memorial Day was moved to a Monday in order to accommodate an agreeable three-day weekend.

Historically, Memorial Day is a sombre and reflective day in which the memory of fallen soldiers are honoured, and the graves of loved ones and family members who died in war are visited and 'decorated' - popular decorations include American flags, as well as flowers and wreaths in the traditional American colours of red, white and blue. Like the UK, the United States has also adopted the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. The use of the poppy as a remembrance symbol takes its inspiration from the famed World War I poem, 'In Flanders Fields', by John McCrae; a touching war poem which paints a hauntingly beautiful picture of a field of fallen soldiers' graves, which are surrounded by row upon row of delicate red poppies. As in the UK, red crepe paper poppies are sold across the country in exchange for donations which help support various veteran charities.

A strong and powerful symbol of national pride, the United States flag is held in extremely high regard across the country and is an important part of Memorial Day - and indeed, of American life. The design of the flag is highly symbolic; the thirteen stripes represent the thirteen colonies that originally declared independence from England, and the fifty stars represent the 50 United States. The colours - red, white and blue, represent bravery, purity and justice, respectively. Memorial Day tradition dictates that flags are flown at half-mast until noon, after which they can be proudly flown at full mast - a symbolic and patriotic gesture of respect for the United States' fallen soldiers.

A National Moment of Remembrance is traditionally observed throughout the nation at 3pm, a time chosen as the optimum time that American citizens will be celebrating their extra holiday day. The National Moment of Remembrance was established by Congress after, on a tour, the Commission's Director asked children the meaning of memorial day - when met with the response that Memorial Day is 'the day the pool opens', the White House Commission on Remembrance was established in order to promote and uphold the values traditionally associated with Memorial Day. There are a number of national groups and influential organisations who practice the National Moment of Remembrance, including Amtrak - at 3pm each Memorial Day, hundreds of Amtrak locomotives sound their whistles in honour of the sacrifice of America's armed forces.

Today, along with the Moment of Remembrance, national parades, flag flying and grave decorating of Memorial Day, American citizens celebrate the national holiday in a manner a little more jovial. Officially classed as a federal holiday, Memorial Day is an opportunity for many US citizens to celebrate a long, early summer weekend, with schools and businesses across the country closing for the day. This extended weekend, along with the commonly held notion that Memorial Day marks the unofficial beginning of summer, means that the last Monday of each May is often seen as an excuse for indulging in convivial, summery activities. Modern Memorial Day celebrations often eschew the traditions of the past, instead favouring picnics, barbecues, beach and pool parties and shopping sales. And while these harmless festivities are not necessarily detrimental to the original cause, it is important to take a moment to remember the true origins of Memorial Day; a poignant day of remembrance in which to commemorate and honour the memory of the many brave men and women who gave their lives serving the United States military.