Ways to Celebrate Memorial Day during the COVID-19 Lock Down

Most years, Memorial Day is the unofficial kickoff to summer. Americans salute and honor the memory of our military heroes with grand parades, lively family picnics and crowded barbecues.

Man Holding American Flag in left hand, while draped in American flag.

But, this year, everything is different. Even as the country moves forward with the reopening process, people continue to practice caution and avoid unnecessary contact with others. Some states and counties are still under lock down, and many state and local governments continue to mandate mask-wearing and social distancing, which severely limits in-person socializing. Also, many annual Memorial Day events have been canceled around the country.

Don’t let any of that put a damper on your Memorial Day plans, though. While you may not be able to celebrate the way you usually do, you can still commemorate the day dedicated to our fallen military heroes without compromising your health and safety.

Here are some ideas to get you started.

Create your own parade 

The town’s yearly Memorial Day parade may have been canceled, but you can get together with your neighbors and salute our heroes, COVID-19 style. Arrange a car parade for the neighborhood and have everyone decorate their vehicles with patriotic signs and banners in honor of the day.

Watch the National Memorial Day Concert from home 

You don’t have to head out to Washington, D.C. this year to watch the National Memorial Day Concert. PBS will be broadcasting the annual concert on Sunday, May 24, at 8 p.m. As always, the concert will feature performances and tributes filmed from around the country to honor our servicepeople who gave their all.

Get outdoors

Celebrate the start of summer in the glorious outdoors. Break out the bike, take a fishing trip, lace up your hiking boots or enjoy a nature walk with your family.

Visit George Washington’s Virginia estate 

Why not treat the entire family to a fascinating history lesson this Memorial Day? Mount Vernon might currently be closed to the public, but you can now enjoy a virtual 360-degree tour of the estate on its website.

Run in a virtual race

Live races are still prohibited in much of the country, but you can compete in a virtual race this Memorial Day. Check out Racehawk.com for a list of virtual races you can join this Memorial Day weekend.

Pay a virtual visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

The memorial, based in Arlington, Va., will be hosting its annual Memorial Day Ceremony via webcast this year. The event will run from 1-2 p.m. Eastern time on Monday, May 25, and will honor those who served in the U.S. armed forces during the Vietnam War.

 Your Turn: How are you celebrating Memorial Day this year? Tell us about it in the comments.

Everyone Understands the True Meaning of the Day: Myths and Facts

In 2000, a Gallup Poll showed that only 28% of Americans understood the true meaning200514832-001 of Memorial Day. In response, President Clinton issued an official memorandum for all federal departments, stating in part:

“… I ask that all Americans come together to recognize how fortunate we are to live in freedom and to observe a universal ‘National Moment of Remembrance’ on each Memorial Day. This memorial observance represents a simple and unifying way to commemorate our history and honor the struggle to protect our freedoms.”

Clinton signed the National Moment of Remembrance Act on Dec. 28 of that year, designating 3 p.m. local time on every Memorial Day as a National Moment of Remembrance.

It’s Always Been Called Memorial Day

Actually, it was originally Decoration Day. The purpose was to visit cemeteries and place flowers on graves of fallen loved ones who had died as soldiers. In May 1868, Gen. John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month: “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country … and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

In 1882, many people began calling it Memorial Day, although the Decoration Day name didn’t disappear until after World War II. A federal law passed in 1967 officially made the name of the holiday “Memorial Day.”

Memorial Day Commemorates the Fallen of All U.S. Wars

Now it does, but it originally honored only those that were lost in the Civil War. During World War I, as the United States found itself engaged in another major conflict, the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who had died in any war.

Although WWI was called “The War to End All Wars,” the Civil War is without question the U.S. holder of that title. Some 750,000 soldiers died, making it the deadliest war in our history and requiring the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries. For comparison, about 644,000 Americans have died in all other conflicts combined.

Memorial Day has Nothing to do with Waterloo, Right?

Many towns claim to be the birthplace of this tradition, but it’s unclear exactly where it originated. By the late 1860s, Americans in various towns and cities had begun holding springtime tributes to their fallen soldiers, decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers.

In April 1866, for instance, just a year after the war ended, women from Columbus, Mississippi, laid flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers. It was recognized at the time as an act of healing regional wounds. That same month, in Carbondale, Illinois, 219 Civil War veterans marched to Woodlawn Cemetery, where Logan would later deliver his address. The ceremony gives Carbondale a claim to the first organized, community-wide Memorial Day observance.

Despite this and other independent observances, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a proclamation on May 26, 1966, naming Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day. Waterloo – named after the more famous one in Belgium where Napoleon was defeated – was chosen because it hosted an annual community-wide event each Memorial Day after 1866. During that time, businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.

Memorial Day Has Always Been the Last Monday in May

The date of Decoration Day, as Logan called it, was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle and because flowers would be in bloom. Memorial Day was celebrated on May 30 for decades, but in 1968, a century after Logan’s decree, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, establishing Memorial Day as a federal holiday on the last Monday in May. The legislation took effect in 1971 and was intended to give federal employees a three-day vacation.

Flags Fly at Half-Mast All Day on Memorial Day

Almost right. Many Americans display the United States flag from their front porches or attached to a flagpole. Others decorate their front lawns with mini flags. Most federal buildings, including post offices and courthouses, fly their flags at half-mast. If you want to follow suit, feel free, but you technically should fly flags at half-staff only from sunrise until noon, then raise them to the top until sunset.

The commemorative flag tradition at Arlington National Cemetery began in the 1950s. Soldiers now place flags on over 260,000 graves there. The national cemetery, located across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., was originally the home of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. It became a cemetery after the war to bury the nation’s honored dead.

Confederate States Didn’t Observe Memorial Day Until After WWI

That’s not quite true. Because of resentment toward the north after the war, most U.S. southern states decided not to celebrate Decoration Day in 1868. All but one of them honored their dead on separate days until after World War I (whereas, by 1890 every northern state had made Decoration Day an official holiday).

There’s one exception, though: Mississippi. On April 25, 1866, the town of Columbus embraced both the Union and Confederate casualties buried in its cemetery. This tradition is still carried on today in the state: Blue uniforms or gray, all are honored for their sacrifice.

Nine southern states set aside a separate day for honoring Confederate dead, variously called Confederate Memorial Day, Confederate Decoration Day and Confederate Heroes Day: Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Louisiana and Tennessee.

No Country Can Eat 800 Hot Dogs a Second

Au contraire. Although Memorial Day can and should be a solemn occasion, Americans also gravitate toward parades, road trips and barbecues on that weekend. And the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council – yep, there is one – says that, on Memorial Day, we’ll consume 818 grilled dogs per second. That’s just short of 71 million a day.

Have a fun and safe Memorial Day holiday weekend. See how many of these facts or myths your friends and family at the picnic might know. But, most of all, keep in mind that, for 150 years, the real reason for the holiday has been to honor fallen American heroes.



Memorial Day: How Did It All Begin?

Originally called Decoration Day, Memorial Day began following the Civil War when American families were counting their losses.  Popular poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow captured the sentiment of the entire nation in the final stanza of his poem, “Decoration Day,” published in 1882:
Your silent tents of green 
We deck with fragrant flowers;
Yours has the suffering been,
The memory shall be ours.

In May of 1868, Gen.  John Logan, Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, had issued the following order: “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” 

Although many families traveled to cemeteries where fallen soldiers were buried for the purpose of placing flowers on graves, paying their respects and picnicking nearby, nobody was thinking about May 30th as we often think about Memorial Day weekend now. Decoration Day wasn’t set aside to be a three-day holiday for kicking off the summer months.

Decoration Day Became Memorial Day 

A century after Logan’s decree, in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which included establishing Memorial Day as a federal holiday on the last Monday in May. The legislation took effect in 1971 and was intended to give federal employees a three-day vacation, so that’s when we all began to see the holiday as a time to relax, perhaps more than as a time to remember and honor fallen soldiers. 

By the year 2000, President William J. Clinton issued an official memorandum for all federal departments because a Gallup Poll had shown only 28% of Americans understood the true meaning of Memorial Day. It stated: 

“… I ask that all Americans come together to recognize how fortunate we are to live in freedom and to observe a universal ‘National Moment of Remembrance’ on each Memorial Day. This memorial observance represents a simple and unifying way to commemorate our history and honor the struggle to protect our freedoms.” 

You may be familiar with the 3 p.m. moment of silence observed by all Major League Baseball teams, NASCAR, Greyhound Lines, and NASA. And if you are traveling on Amtrak or located anywhere along its route at 3:00 pm on Memorial Day, you’ll hear train whistles blasting to honor “the service and sacrifice of America’s armed services.

The well-known red Buddy Poppies sold on Memorial Day by the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) were also inspired by a poem, “In Flanders’ Field,” by John McCrae. They represent the blood shed by Allied soldiers in WWI, and the fields of poppies waving over their graves. VFW raises money each year to “honor the dead by helping the living.” 

The American Flag – Long May It Wave On Memorial Day 

Maybe you’re feeling inspired to fly an American flag on Memorial Day. If so, be sure to follow the proper etiquette.  To fly your flag at half-staff as a symbol of mourning, first raise it to the top of the pole for a moment, and then lower it to the halfway point. On Memorial Day only, the flag is flown at half-staff until noon, then raised up again between noon and sunset. This gesture is intended to represent the respect of the American people raising up the flag once again.  

If you’re planning to travel over Memorial Day weekend, whether visiting cemeteries or to simply enjoy a vacation, look around for discounts offered to military families and veterans, active or retired.  Museums, cruise ships, amusement parks, motels, restaurants and chain stores often choose to honor service men and women with military IDs, American Legion and VFW membership cards or VA letters.

Military.com lists Memorial Day events around the country with frequently updates. Visitors to the Washington D.C. area will find many commemorative events scheduled on Sunday and Monday, but perhaps most popular will be the National Memorial Day Parade on Monday, May 30th. It begins at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 7th Streets, NW and ends at 17th Street.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs’ website lists Memorial Day ceremonies at national cemeteries in every state, with starting times and contact information included.  Although it occurs a few days before Memorial Day, one tradition at the Arlington National Cemetery may inspire you to develop your own traditions this year:
“For more than 60 years, the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) has honored America’s fallen heroes by placing American flags at gravesites for service members buried at both Arlington National Cemetery and the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery just prior to Memorial Day weekend. 
“This tradition, known as “Flags in,” has been conducted annually since The Old Guard was designated as the Army’s official ceremonial unit in 1948. Every available soldier in the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment participates, placing small American flags at each headstone and at the bottom of each niche row.”
Can you picture it? That’s over a quarter-million little American flags waving at one national cemetery alone. How will you pause to honor those who have given their lives for our freedom on Memorial Day this year?