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Just a Little Reminder to the Rest of the World

Monday, May 31, 2021, 14:51 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

Today is the American holiday of Memorial Day. It’s the equivalent of the day observed on November 11 in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and some mainland European nations to commemorate their military service members who died in war. The date reflects the armistice ending the first World War. So why does the United States honor their war dead every year almost six months earlier?

For one thing, Memorial Day predates World War I by several decades. It is believed to have been first observed on May 30, 1868, three years after the end of the American Civil War, at the direction of Gen. John Logan, Grand Army of the Republic (the organization of Union veterans of the Civil War). It was originally called Decoration Day because women would use the occasion to decorate the graves of dead Civil War soldiers, a common practice going back centuries. While other Civil War remembrances took place in both north and south before the first Decoration Day, May 30, 1868 marks the first organized observance of what would by 1890 become a holiday in every northern state.

By the time a 1967 act of Congress officially named the holiday “Memorial Day,” the observance had come to include the military dead of the two World Wars and the Korean War. In 1971, the official observance of the holiday was changed to the last Monday in May in order to create a long holiday weekend. (The law also moved observance of Washington’s birthday, Labor Day, and Columbus Day to Mondays; Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday would join the Monday holidays in 1986.)

Not that the United States failed to commemorate the end of World War I. On the contrary, November 11 was celebrated as Armistice Day unofficially from 1919 and became a legal Federal holiday in 1938. Following the second World War, the end of which was also noteworthy, Congress renamed the holiday Veterans Day in 1954 and left the memorializing of war dead to the end of May.

All of which is a long way of saying that we celebrate Memorial Day instead of Remembrance Day because Memorial Day was established first. And that’s how it came to be that we Americans remember our military countrymen and countrywomen who died in war on the last Monday in May and honor all our mitary veterans on November 11.

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