How to Celebrate Memorial Day (Hint: It’s Different Than Veteran’s Day)

Memorial Day is a time to honor those who lost their lives while serving in the military.
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One glance at the holiday Facebook feed is all it takes to see that many people aren’t quite sure what Memorial Day is all about. Pictures of loved ones who are currently serving are posted alongside stories of grandparents who died in the line of duty. People are barbecuing and having pool parties. Sometimes elements of Veteran’s Day get thrown into the mix.

So what is Memorial Day? And how should people celebrate? So often the “Memorial” in Memorial Day seems to fall by the wayside.

The History of Memorial Day

Memorial Day has a history rooted in Decoration Day- a time that was designated for the nation to decorate the graves of those who had died in the Civil War. This observance started in 1868, three years after the war was over.

General John Logan stated, “We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security, is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or the coming generations, that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided Republic…”

Decoration Day was celebrated on different dates all over the country, usually in April. After World War I, the holiday expanded to honor those who died in all American wars, and the date moved to May 30th. Finally, in 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day as a national holiday, establishing the last Monday in May as the official time of remembrance.

How to Celebrate Memorial Day

Memorial Day is a time to honor those who lost their lives while serving in the military. For widows and orphans, it can be painful to see people treating the holiday as just another time to party. Memorial day was intended to be a solemn remembrance.

Some observance suggestions from The Memorial Day Foundation include:

  • Visiting cemeteries and placing flags or flowers on the graves of our fallen heroes.
  • Flying the U.S. Flag at half-staff until noon. Memorial Day is a day of “National Mourning.”
  • Attending religious services of your choice.
  • Visiting memorials.
  • Participating in a “National Moment of Remembrance” at 3:00 PM local time, to pause and think upon the meaning of the day and for taps to be played where possible.
  • Renewing a pledge to aid the widows, and orphans of our fallen dead, and to aid the disabled veterans.

Young children can participate in Memorial Day by reading age-appropriate books on the subject, learning how to fly and fold the flag, making a wreath to leave on a memorial or grave, or attending a local parade or community event.

Families can observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries and placing flags or flowers on the graves of our fallen heroes.

What About Veteran’s Day?

Veteran’s Day is in November. It is a day to honor all who have served in the American military. On Veteran’s Day, it is more appropriate to bring out the party foods and the feasting- if you’re doing it to honor a veteran.

On Veteran’s Day, it’s more appropriate to share the stories and photos of those currently serving (with their permission) as well as the stories of relatives who have passed on, but who did not die in the line of duty.

Veteran’s Day provides an opportunity to perform acts of service for the families of military members who are deployed. Or to volunteer with or donate to organizations that help soldiers with the physical and mental health issues they may face after returning home.

Either way, both holidays should be observed with sensitivity and respect. So before Facebook blows up with pool pictures of people’s “Memorial Day Vacation,” think about the reason these holidays exist, and what they represent. Then choose to honor the intended meaning of the day.

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Annie Beth Donahue lives in Indian Trail, North Carolina with her husband Brad, and four children. She is a professional writer for both the web and print, and she can be found at

Annie Beth also has a bachelor's degree in music therapy from Queens University of Charlotte, and has either been working with or parenting children with special needs for the past 18 years. She is a children's book author and the founder and president of Signposts Ministries, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that serves families that have children with chronic health problems or disabilities. In her non-working time, she homeschools and oversees the children's care of their small menagerie made up of chickens, two donkeys, a dog, a cat, and a snake.