How Is Memorial Day Celebrated?

Rick Scavetta, U.S. Army Africa/Wikimedia Commons

Many people observe Memorial Day by visiting grave sites, cemeteries or memorials and placing flowers, flags and more in honor of deceased loved ones. Other activities centered around the holiday include participating in or watching Memorial Day parades and going to family picnics and other gatherings. Memorial Day is observed in the United States on the last Monday in May.

Honoring the Fallen

Memorial Day originally started out as Decoration Day in the 1860s. It was a time to decorate the graves of Civil War soldiers with wreaths and flowers to honor the lives of the most deadly conflict in U.S. history. Over time, Decoration Day became known as Memorial Day, and it expanded to include all American soldiers who died in the line of duty.

Because of that, honoring the fallen is the best way to celebrate Memorial Day. Traditionally, that means visiting grave sites and setting aside time to reflect on the sacrifices made by soldiers on the battlefield, but there are other ways to do that as well. Parades, ceremonies, charitable work for veterans, learning about American history and more are all in line with the original spirit of the holiday. Military drills and demonstrations are also popular.

Wearing Poppy Flowers

If you’ve ever seen someone wearing a red flower pinned to their clothes on Memorial Day, it’s not a coincidence. During World War I, the destruction on the battlefield was so great that in many places, the land turned to mud without any vegetation. Only poppy flowers could grow in the harsh conditions, and they inspired John McCrae, a colonel in the Canadian army, to compose the poem “In Flanders Fields” about fallen soldiers resting in flower-strewn fields across Europe


The poem inspired two women from France and Georgia to sell artificial poppies to raise money for World War I orphans. Their efforts were so successful that the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States (VFW) adopted the Poppy as their official memorial flower, and the Friday before Memorial Day became Poppy Day.

Celebrating Summer

In the United States, Memorial Day is also the unofficial beginning of summer. Many camps, pools, amusement parks and other seasonal organizations open their doors each year on Memorial Day Weekend, and for students, it’s often the last holiday before the end of the school year. While summer doesn’t truly begin until June by most metrics, Memorial Day is nevertheless a time to celebrate the return of balmy weather and good times.


Because of this, picnics, camping, road trips, barbecues and other forms of outdoor fun are popular on Memorial Day Weekend. That’s also why Memorial Day is not just an opportunity to be grateful for the sacrifices of soldiers, but also to reconnect with family, take a much-needed break from the daily grind and instead reflect on the more important things in life.

Memorial Day Sales

While it’s not exactly in the original spirit of the holiday, Memorial Day has also become associated with the first big sale of the summer season for many retailers. Brick-and-mortar stores ranging from car dealerships and Home Depot to Target and Best Buy often offer special deals to capitalize on the extra time and positive mood of people enjoying a three-day vacation. Even online retailers like Amazon and Microsoft often get in on the action, making it a great time to buy whatever you’ll need for the summer months ahead.


The Original Memorial Day

Until 1971, Memorial Day (and Decoration Day before it) was celebrated every year on May 30 rather than the last Monday of the month. Different sources suggest the day was chosen either because no Civil War battles had their anniversary on that day or because flowers are in bloom across the United States at that point in the year, making them available to leave on soldier’s graves. 


The same legislation that officially changed the name from Decoration Day to Memorial Day in 1968 also scheduled the 1971 change. While it made possible the regular three-day Memorial Day Weekend that people enjoy today, many veterans were angered by the move. According to them, the move distracted from the original purpose of the holiday as a day of remembrance. Some members of the VFW, American Legion and other groups continue to lobby for a change back to the original date.