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Memorial Day Observed

Annual holiday about more than barbecues and the start of summer

By Dante A. Ciampaglia | null null , null
Soldiers from the U.S. Army place American flags on each of more than 220,000 graves during the "Flags-In" ceremony in preparation for Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo:©Roger L. Wollenberg/UPI Photos/NewsCom)
Soldiers from the U.S. Army place American flags on each of more than 220,000 graves during the "Flags-In" ceremony in preparation for Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo:©Roger L. Wollenberg/UPI Photos/NewsCom)

On Monday, May 26, Americans everywhere will celebrate Memorial Day. A lot of kids and adults will be off from school and work. There will be parades all over the country. Many people will have parties and cookouts.

Unofficially, summer begins on Memorial Day.

But it's more than just a day off or a day for outdoor parties. Memorial Day is a celebration and day of remembrance of Americans who have served and died in service to the nation.

Memorial Day was once called Decoration Day

The national tradition of honoring America's military dead began after the Civil War. On May 5, 1868, Major General John A. Logan proclaimed that Decoration Day would be observed on May 30. Logan was the head of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a group of Union veterans from the Civil War.

The purpose of Decoration Day, Logan said, would be to decorate the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers with flowers. About 5000 people took part in the first official Decoration Day celebration at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Members of the GAR and kids from the Soldiers' and Sailors' Orphan Home laid flowers on graves and sang hymns.

Kids, in the 1940s, celebrating, Memorial Day
Ashland, Aroostook County, Maine. Memorial Day ceremonies, May 1943 (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

 

At the end of World War I in 1918 Memorial Day—still called Decoration Day—became a day to honor all the troops that have fallen in American wars. And it wasn't until 1971 that Memorial Day became an official national holiday.

Honoring the fallen

When Gen. Logan decreed the national Decoration Day, he likely chose the month of May because it was in the spring. This season allowed him to dress the graves of soldiers "with the choicest flowers of springtime," he wrote in his order proclaiming the holiday.

But the good weather that spring usually brings also allowed Gen. Logan to realize another goal of Decoration Day.

"Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners," Logan wrote. "Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic."

Logan's desire to create a day to remember the sacrifices of America's fallen heroes takes on greater significance during times of armed conflict. During this year's Memorial Day, for example, the nation will honor troops from wars like Vietnam and World War II. But people will also stop and remember the more than 4,500 Americans who have died in the continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Ways to celebrate

Since there is a long history of observing Memorial Day in the United States, there are many traditions: parades, moments of silence, cookouts, and flying the American flag at half-staff. Military honor guard also lay wreaths in ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery and the Vietnam Veterans and Air Force Memorials in Washington D.C.

But each city and town in the country has its own way of celebrating Memorial Day. Contact the mayor's office in your town to find out what kinds of Memorial Day events are happening in your town!

Another way is to celebrate Memorial Day every day of the year. Memorial Day isn't just about those who have died in combat, but everyone who has served. Talk to your teachers about organizing a letter-writing campaign for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Participate in a group that sends letters and care packages to the, like the organization Kids for Our Troops.

And with the continued deployment of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are a lot of kids who are missing their mom or dad. Sometimes, both parents are fighting for their country. If you know a kid like that, spend time over the Memorial Day holiday with them.

Talk to your friends, classmates, families, and teachers and come up with ways to honor America's troops every day. Once you have some ideas, come back and share them with kids across the country on our Scholastic News Online blog!

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