Whether there is someone in your family who has served in a branch of the military or you currently have someone on active duty, there may be traditions you engage in every year on this day. Some of you may have extended family or friends that you get together with to celebrate by having a barbecue, or you place flags at a local cemetery or attend a patriotic concert honoring our military servicemen and women.
This Memorial Day, we thought we would share 10 ideas for ways you can honor Memorial Day as a family and perhaps start some new traditions.
The History of Memorial Day
The Civil War ended in the spring of 1865, and many communities across the nation celebrated. Since this war was such a traumatic event, claiming more American lives than any war before or since that time, cities and communities began holding annual spring events in commemoration. These tributes usually involved laying fresh flowers on the graves of the fallen and holding prayer sessions.
In 1868, General Logan, a veteran and leader of the Northern Civil War Veterans, began a campaign to hold a nationwide day of remembrance. His group called it “Decoration Day,” due to the flower-laying ceremonies that had taken hold in many cities and towns.
The group chose May 30 because it was not associated with the anniversary of any specific battle or the start or end of any conflict. Soon, almost every state had institutionalized Decoration Day through legislation, although the southern states often celebrated on a different day.
However, after World War I, all states began celebrating Decoration Day at the end of May. More people began using the moniker Memorial Day, too, as it seemed to fit the real purpose of the holiday, memorializing or remembering our fallen soldiers.
In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holidays Act that cemented Memorial Day as a federal holiday to be celebrated on the last Monday in May.
Veterans Day versus Memorial Day
Veterans Day began much more recently than Memorial Day. Veterans Day is an international holiday, started by the allies after World War 1. Called Remembrance Day in the UK and Armistice Day in France, it began to honor all soldiers, living and dead, who served their countries during World War I.
It was initially called Armistice Day by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in 1919. By 1938 it was an official federal holiday, and by the 1950s the name was changed to Veterans Day. Memorial Day, however, remained a holiday specifically focused on honoring those whose lives were lost in battle.
This year, Memorial Day will be observed on Monday, May 28. You may already have plans and traditions, but here are 10 more ideas to add to your list.
10 Great Ways to Honor Memorial Day
Many cities and towns hold a special ceremony each Memorial Day to honor those who have served their country. Veterans, active military personnel, government officials and local children’s groups like the Boy Scouts march and ride in these parades.
If you are up for travel this year, many of the largest cities in the U.S. hold substantial Memorial Day parades. One of the most popular Memorial Day parades that may be worth traveling to is in Washington, DC, best known as The National Memorial Day Parade along Constitution Avenue.
It’s one of the biggest events of the year that takes place in our nation’s capital, drawing people from all around the country and the world. The average crowd on Memorial Day in the National Mall by the Washington Monument often exceeds 100,000 people.
The National Memorial Day Parade recognizes our nation’s fallen in sequential order. First are floats representing the Revolutionary War heroes. Bystanders can watch a complete sequence of events continuing through the Civil War, World War I and our most recent Middle East conflicts.
Many surviving soldiers from World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam participate in the parade to honor their fallen friends and colleagues. Consider taking your family to Washington, DC over Memorial Day this year to watch something that you are sure to remember for many years to come.
Writing Thank You Letters to the Military Community
One great tradition to add to your family’s day might be to take the time to write letters to the families of those who are serving in the military. While we understand that Memorial Day is a time to remember those that have fallen during service, taking the time to thank those who are currently serving honors the legacy of their predecessors.
Writing letters really doesn’t take much time or effort on your part and can make a world of difference to anyone who receives a heartfelt handwritten thank-you. Many programs can help facilitate this, too.
Operation We Are Here does a beautiful job providing information and ideas for supporting the military by compiling a list of different organizations that help civilians find ways to give back. From volunteering to be an airport greeter, sending care packages to supplying free thank-you cards for military veterans, kids and families, this website has some excellent ideas for showing your gratitude this Memorial Day and beyond.
A Trip to Visit Cemeteries and Memorials
Memorial Day services will typically occur in or near a veteran’s cemetery or memorial. Visiting these places is another good way to honor Memorial Day as a family.
In addition to visiting, you can volunteer to place an American Flag on each grave in national cemeteries. It’s as simple as purchasing these American stick flags and contacting the cemetery you’ll be visiting to plant the flags as a small token of remembrance.
A particularly interesting place to visit is Arlington National Cemetery, a truly marvelous place to see. If you’re in our nation’s capital, the location is perfect, directly across the Potomac, less than two miles from the National Mall.
The carefully preserved headstones and manicured lawn pay perpetual tribute to our heroic dead. It is the final place of rest for over 400,000 service members and their families.
As a veteran, you are guaranteed a spot in Arlington Cemetery when you die, either in the columbarium or in a burial plot. Retirees, those killed in action and certain medal award winners can be buried in the ground, whereas any former active duty service member can have a spot for his or her remains in the columbarium.
Another great event to attend in the Washington, DC area is the rousing Rolling Thunder rally. Almost 1 million motorcycle riders from all over the country gather in Washington to honor the POWS and MIAs who served our country during the Vietnam war.
The rally takes place on Memorial Day weekend, starting at the Pentagon and going through West Potomac Park.
National Memorial Day Concert
Every year, PBS broadcasts the National Memorial Day Concert from Washington, DC on the National Mall. If you are up for the trip, start to plan it now and book your tickets early for this very popular event. Otherwise, you can watch from the comfort of your own home.
This year the concert will be held Sunday, May 27 at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. The show will feature uplifting musical performances, documentary footage and dramatic readings to honor the military service of our men and women. The goal is to honor those who gave their lives during battle and grieve with the family they left behind.
One unique and fun way to commemorate Memorial Day is to attend a re-enactment. A re-enactment is a group of people gather together in authentic military gear to recreate the events of a real-time war, usually on the site of famous battles. With rifles loaded with blanks, appropriately historical attire and real-life sets, it’s sure to be a fun and educational time.
Many reenactment events are happening around the United States on Memorial Day, Each event has its specific requirements for attending and observing, so check ahead of time. Some may require fees or a dress code for period costumes.
Memorial Day Prayer Services
Every year, the National Cemetery Administration hosts a Memorial Day ceremony at VA national cemeteries across the country with help from people in each community. Every celebration will be different because each city has the liberty to add their own touch and sentiments to the service.
Take a moment of silence to quietly reflect on those who gave their lives so that you and your family could live in a free and democratic society.
Quality Time with Loved Ones
One exciting way to spend this Memorial Day is to devote some quality time to a veteran in your life.
Taking the time to learn about someone else’s journey is one way to honor their service. There’s no more significant tool you can teach your kids than empathy and gratitude by listening to first-hand accounts from veterans who have seen the effects of war.
If a veteran is willing to share his story, you may also learn something about the history and mindset of the soldiers and civilians at the time. An oral recounting of history from someone who experienced it first-hand provides an entirely new perspective on the events.
One of the most popular events that has become a Memorial Day tradition almost everywhere is the cookout. Memorial Day traditionally starts the summer vacation season. It is the first three-day weekend of the season, and the weather is usually beginning to warm-up at last.
This year, why not go all out and make your cookout a patriotic one. Decorate the table with flag garlands and the lawn and pathway with stick flags. Have the veterans in your life wear their uniforms. You can buy hats or maybe MIA/POW t-shirts for everyone to wear in memory of those who never came home. Perhaps the children can come dressed in period costumes to represent each of the major conflicts in our almost 250-year history as a nation.
If you would rather have a quiet, more intimate family gathering, make it fun for the children, too. Read a book together about the wartime sacrifices of our soldiers and sailors. Have the children help you make an American-themed dessert like a red, white and blue cake.
Charity Runs and More
Maybe you’re into fitness or running and want to find a way to honor those who have served in our military this Memorial Day. Many races occur all over the country that donate the proceeds to veterans and memorial causes for our military members. Take a look online to find a race in your area today!
It can be challenging to celebrate Memorial Day in a meaningful way. This holiday, simply making sure that everyone around you feels appreciated is a great place to begin.
Let’s take time this year to find a deeper awareness of the sacrifices that are occurring right now on our behalf and examine the sacrifices over the course of American history.
Take the time this Memorial Day to truly grasp both the triumphs and the losses that our great nation has experienced, thanks to the people who lost their lives fighting for our great country.
“It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.” — George S. Patton