Memorial Day: Americans honor fallen soldiers, set records for weekend travel

A Memorial Day ceremony. Photo by rawpixel.com / U.S. Army (Source), courtesy of Rawpixel

MONDAY, MAY 27: Across America, cities abound with parades and ceremonies for fallen soldiers, accented by the scent of barbecues firing up for the season: It’s Memorial Day!

The unofficial start of summer in America began, less than two centuries ago, as a solemn observance for the war that had consumed more lives than any other U.S. conflict. While memorial services still abound, the national holiday also means picnics, beaches, fireworks and, of course, travel, as Americans enjoy a three-day weekend.

2024 travel update: AAA’s forecast for 2024 says that this year will see the one of the highest Memorial Day travel forecasts since 2000; this year is expected to set a record for road-trip travel. 

Scroll down in this story to read our best holiday tips. However, before we list those links, let’s celebrate a tireless historian who helped Americans recover our history of this more-than-150-year-old observance.

A PULITZER FOR THE HOLIDAY’S HISTORIAN

Memorial Day began as an annual, grassroots practice of sprucing up the gravesites of the countless Americans who died during the Civil War. That’s why, for many years, the observance was called Decoration Day, describing the flowers and colorful flags that seemed to sprout across cemeteries each spring.

For much of the 20th Century, however, the painful early roots of this observance were forgotten as proud civic boosters across the country tried to claim their own unique slices of this history. Then, Yale historian David W. Blight researched and corrected the record, finally honoring the fact that the courageous pioneers in observing this holiday were former slaves in the South who dared to decorate Yankee graves. In his history, Race and ReunionBlight writes: “Decoration Day, and the many ways in which it is observed, shaped Civl War memory as much as any other cultural ritual.” Here’s a link to a 2022 ReadTheSpirit column that tells more about Blight’s history of the original Decoration Day in the South.

Blight continued to research race and American memory in that era and eventually was honored with the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in history for his in-depth biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.

MEMORIAL DAY & CIVIL RELIGION

The famed sociologist of American religion, Robert Bellah, also shaped the evolution of Memorial Day’s meaning in a landmark article he published in a 1967 issue of Dædalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He called his long article “Civil Religion in America,” taking the centuries-old concept of “civil religion” and kicked off decades of fresh research into how our civil religion defines our American culture. You can read Bellah’s entire original article online.

A few lines from Bellah’s article about Memorial Day …
Until the Civil War, the American civil religion focused above all on the event of the Revolution, which was seen as the final act of the Exodus from the old lands across the waters. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were the sacred scriptures and Washington the divinely appointed Moses who led his people out of the hands of tyranny.

Then—The Civil War raised the deepest questions of national meaning. The man who not only formulated but in his own person embodied its meaning for Americans was Abraham Lincoln. For him the issue was not in the first instance slavery but “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.” … With the Civil War, a new theme of death, sacrifice, and rebirth enters the new civil religion. It is symbolized in the life and death of Lincoln. Nowhere is it stated more vividly than in the Gettysburg Address, itself part of the Lincolnian “New Testament” among the civil scriptures.

WANT SOME HOLIDAY IDEAS?

Kara Zauberman of The Food Network’s Pioneer Woman compiled “50 Best Memorial Day Recipes for Your Holiday Cookout.”

Better Homes & Gardens has “12 Things to Do for Memorial Day Weekend with Family and Friends

Good Housekeeping has “21 Special Memorial Day Activities Your Family Can Do Together

Country Living has “33 Best Things to Do on Memorial Day for Kids and Adults

Memorial Day: Hometown parades, ceremonies for fallen soldiers and the smell of barbecues firing up

The U.S. Air Force Band plays the national anthem during a Memorial Day ceremony at the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Sean K. Harp/Released)

MONDAY, MAY 29: Hometown parades, ceremonies for fallen soldiers and the smell of barbecues firing up across the country: It’s Memorial Day!

The unofficial start of summer in America began, less than two centuries ago, as a solemn observance for the war that had consumed more lives than any other U.S. conflict. While memorial services still abound, the national holiday also means picnics, beaches, fireworks and, of course, travel, as Americans enjoy a three-day weekend.

2023 travel update: AAA’s travel forecast for 2023 says that 42.3 million Americans will hit the road over the holiday weekend.

Scroll down in this story to read our best holiday tips. However, before we list those links, let’s celebrate a tireless historian who helped Americans recover our history of this more-than-150-year-old observance.

A PULITZER FOR THE HOLIDAY’S HISTORIAN

Memorial Day began as an annual, grassroots practice of sprucing up the gravesites of the countless Americans who died during the Civil War. That’s why, for many years, the observance was called Decoration Day, describing the flowers and colorful flags that seemed to sprout across cemeteries each spring.

For much of the 20th Century, however, the painful early roots of this observance were forgotten as proud civic boosters across the country tried to claim their own unique slices of this history. Then, Yale historian David W. Blight researched and corrected the record, finally honoring the fact that the courageous pioneers in observing this holiday were former slaves in the South who dared to decorate Yankee graves. In his history, Race and ReconciliationBlight writes: “Decoration Day, and the many ways in which it is observed, shaped Civl War memory as much as any other cultural ritual.”

Blight continued to research race and American memory in that era and, this spring, he has been honored with the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in history for his in-depth biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.

MEMORIAL DAY and CIVIL RELIGION

The famed sociologist of American religion, Robert Bellah, also shaped the evolution of Memorial Day’s meaning in a landmark article he published in a 1967 issue of Dædalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He called his long article “Civil Religion in America,” taking the centuries-old concept of “civil religion” and kicked off decades of fresh research into how our civil religion defines our American culture. You can read Bellah’s entire original article online.

A few lines from Bellah’s article about Memorial Day …
Until the Civil War, the American civil religion focused above all on the event of the Revolution, which was seen as the final act of the Exodus from the old lands across the waters. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were the sacred scriptures and Washington the divinely appointed Moses who led his people out of the hands of tyranny.

Then—The Civil War raised the deepest questions of national meaning. The man who not only formulated but in his own person embodied its meaning for Americans was Abraham Lincoln. For him the issue was not in the first instance slavery but “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.” … With the Civil War, a new theme of death, sacrifice, and rebirth enters the new civil religion. It is symbolized in the life and death of Lincoln. Nowhere is it stated more vividly than in the Gettysburg Address, itself part of the Lincolnian “New Testament” among the civil scriptures.

WANT SOME HOLIDAY IDEAS?

This year, Kara Zauberman, the editor of The Food Network’s Pioneer Woman website compiled “75 Best Memorial Day Recipes for a Memorable Cookout.”

Over at Taste of Home magazine, associate editor Lesley Balla upped the ante with “80 Best Memorial Day Recipes.

There’s a similar competition for lists of best family activities for the weekend.

Better Homes & Gardens has “12 Things to Do for Memorial Day Weekend with Family and Friends

Good Housekeeping has “20 Special Memorial Day Activities Your Family Can Do Together

Country Living has “23 Best Things to Do on Memorial Day Weekend 2023

Total them up and that’s more than 200 ideas!

Memorial Day: America honors fallen heroes with virtual, at-home events

Memorial Day honor graves

Photo by Presidio of Monterey, courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, MAY 25: It’s Memorial Day, and the unofficial start of summer in America began, less than two centuries ago, as a solemn observance for the war that had consumed more lives than any other U.S. conflict. While memorial services still abound (as shown in the photo above), the national holiday today also means barbecues, beaches, parades and fireworks—although this year, many traditional festivities may look different than they do most years. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, families are being encouraged to barbecue at home, watch parades virtually (check out this one, from Farmington Hills, Michigan) and—in places where beaches are reopening—practice social distancing and safety protocols in outdoor public areas.

TUNE IN: PBS will be hosting a National Memorial Day Concert on Sunday, May 24 at 8 p.m. ET to honor veterans as well as the men and women who are fighting against COVID-19.

TRAVEL: Memorial Day weekend is typically a popular travel period in the United States, but this year—in spite of record-low gas prices—travel numbers will be down significantly. Still, those who are planning to travel can check out tips from CNN, this news channel out of New York, and the Los Angeles Times.

FROM CIVIL WAR GRAVESITES TO MEMORIAL DAY

Black-and-white Unknowns Monument, photo

A group of women at the Civil War Unknowns Monument in Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, circa 1915. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Memorial Day began as an annual, grassroots practice of sprucing up the gravesites of the countless Americans who died during the Civil War. That’s why, for many years, the observance was called Decoration Day, describing the flowers and colorful flags that seemed to sprout across cemeteries each spring.

For much of the 20th Century, however, the painful early roots of this observance were forgotten as proud civic boosters across the country tried to claim their own unique slices of this history. Then, Yale historian David W. Blight researched and corrected the record, finally honoring the fact that the courageous pioneers in observing this holiday were former slaves in the South who dared to decorate Yankee graves.

In his history, Race and ReunionBlight writes: “Decoration Day, and the many ways in which it is observed, shaped Civil War memory as much as any other cultural ritual.”

Blight continued to research race and American memory in that era and was honored with the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in history for his in-depth biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.

MEMORIAL DAY & CIVIL RELIGION

The famed sociologist of American religion, Robert Bellah, also shaped the evolution of Memorial Day’s meaning in a landmark article he published in a 1967 issue of Dædalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He called his long article “Civil Religion in America,” taking the centuries-old concept of “civil religion” and kicked off decades of fresh research into how our civil religion defines our American culture. You can read Bellah’s entire original article online.

A few lines from Bellah’s article about Memorial Day …
Until the Civil War, the American civil religion focused above all on the event of the Revolution, which was seen as the final act of the Exodus from the old lands across the waters. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were the sacred scriptures and Washington the divinely appointed Moses who led his people out of the hands of tyranny.

Then—The Civil War raised the deepest questions of national meaning. The man who not only formulated but in his own person embodied its meaning for Americans was Abraham Lincoln. For him the issue was not in the first instance slavery but “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.” … With the Civil War, a new theme of death, sacrifice, and rebirth enters the new civil religion. It is symbolized in the life and death of Lincoln. Nowhere is it stated more vividly than in the Gettysburg Address, itself part of the Lincolnian “New Testament” among the civil scriptures.

Memorial Day: After 154 years, Americans still recall the Civil War and honor our fallen in many wars

Flags in a row, flying

Photo courtesy of Pxhere

MONDAY, MAY 27: It’s as American as apple pie: hometown parades, ceremonies for fallen soldiers and the smell of barbecues firing up across the country.

It’s Memorial Day. The unofficial start of summer in America began, less than two centuries ago, as a solemn observance for the war that had consumed more lives than any other U.S. conflict. While memorial services still abound, the national holiday also means picnics, beaches, fireworks and, of course, travel, as Americans enjoy a three-day weekend.

AAA’s travel forecast for 2019 says that nearly 43 million of us will hit the road this weekend.

Scroll down in this story to read our best 2019 holiday tips. However, before we list those links, let’s celebrate a tireless historian who helped Americans recover our history of this more-than-150-year-old observance.

A PULITZER FOR THE HOLIDAY’S HISTORIAN

Memorial Day began as an annual, grassroots practice of sprucing up the gravesites of the countless Americans who died during the Civil War. That’s why, for many years, the observance was called Decoration Day, describing the flowers and colorful flags that seemed to sprout across cemeteries each spring.

For much of the 20th Century, however, the painful early roots of this observance were forgotten as proud civic boosters across the country tried to claim their own unique slices of this history. Then, Yale historian David W. Blight researched and corrected the record, finally honoring the fact that the courageous pioneers in observing this holiday were former slaves in the South who dared to decorate Yankee graves. In his history, Race and ReconciliationBlight writes: “Decoration Day, and the many ways in which it is observed, shaped Civl War memory as much as any other cultural ritual.”

Blight continued to research race and American memory in that era and, this spring, he has been honored with the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in history for his in-depth biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.

MEMORIAL DAY and CIVIL RELIGION

The famed sociologist of American religion, Robert Bellah, also shaped the evolution of Memorial Day’s meaning in a landmark article he published in a 1967 issue of Dædalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He called his long article “Civil Religion in America,” taking the centuries-old concept of “civil religion” and kicked off decades of fresh research into how our civil religion defines our American culture. You can read Bellah’s entire original article online.

A few lines from Bellah’s article about Memorial Day …
Until the Civil War, the American civil religion focused above all on the event of the Revolution, which was seen as the final act of the Exodus from the old lands across the waters. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were the sacred scriptures and Washington the divinely appointed Moses who led his people out of the hands of tyranny.

Then—The Civil War raised the deepest questions of national meaning. The man who not only formulated but in his own person embodied its meaning for Americans was Abraham Lincoln. For him the issue was not in the first instance slavery but “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.” … With the Civil War, a new theme of death, sacrifice, and rebirth enters the new civil religion. It is symbolized in the life and death of Lincoln. Nowhere is it stated more vividly than in the Gettysburg Address, itself part of the Lincolnian “New Testament” among the civil scriptures.

MEMORIAL DAY? ISN”T THAT A SALE?

The vast majority of Memorial Day news stories in 2019 cover two themes: Travel advice for the millions of American families who hit the road each spring over the holiday weekend—and tips on where to find the biggest bargains in annual “Memorial Day Blowout” sales.

NBC News has an example of the latter in a story headlined The Best 2019 Memorial Day Sales and DealsWhat does the holiday mean? You can save tons of money on everything from fancy rugs and mattresses—to egg cookers. NBC is hardly alone! The New York Post‘s holiday story zeroes in on the best deals in fashion and accessories. Then, naturally WIRED focuses on deals in “Tech and Gaming.” Esquire follows suit with an overview of electronics you can snap up on Amazon at holiday discounts. And, FORTUNE has a long list of businesses and public institutions that are closing for the holiday—and those making a point of staying open.

Check local media, or search Google News for your destination, to find up-to-date travel advice. Some National Parks are bracing for massive crowds. Others may not be entirely open yet, due to snow in high elevations. The National Park Service directs visitors interested in Memorial Day to this page.

Memorial Day: Paying tribute to fallen soldiers & former slaves—plus recipes, songs

MONDAY, MAY 29: Across the U.S., remembrances are observed and grills fire up for Memorial Day, which began in May 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina.

BUT FIRST, HOLIDAY TRAVEL NEWS!  AAA estimates that more people will get away this Memorial Day weekend than have in the past 12 years, with 39.3 million U.S. travelers expected, according to a forecast released Wednesday. That represents an increase of 1 million—2.7 percent—more travelers this year than last Memorial Day weekend. Most of the travelers—88.1 percent, or 34.6 million—will drive to their destinations. Also, look for historic deals: Look around your region at history-themed parks and museums. Some will be opening for the summer season around this three-day weekend. Some have special Memorial weekend deals for visitors, including special offers for veterans. And, observe the National Moment of Remembrance. The official national Moment of Remembrance, established by federal action, is actually a rolling minute of silence, set for 3 p.m. in your respective time zone.

PBS MEMORIAL DAY CONCERT

Don’t miss this! It’s on the evening before Memorial Day—Sunday, May 28—carried via the PBS network nationwide from Washington D.C.

According to PBS’s pre-broadcast plan for the live event: The 2017 concert will feature tributes to the last surviving Doolittle Raider, Colonel Richard Cole, and the 75th anniversary of that daring bombing mission over Tokyo, as well as the 70th anniversary of the United States Air Force and some of the most skilled aviators of World War II – the Tuskegee Airmen. In addition, the concert will honor the legacy of Jerry Colbert, Founder and Executive Producer of Capital Concerts, who passed away in January 2017.

Emmy and Tony Award-winner Laurence Fishburne is stepping in to co-host the 28th annual edition of the National Memorial Day Concert with Tony Award-winner Joe Mantegna. Sinise will present a 75th anniversary salute to the Doolittle Raiders, the daring aviators who changed the course of World War II in the Pacific. The all-star lineup for the event includes: General Colin L. Powell, USA (Ret.); Renée Fleming; Vanessa Williams; Scotty McCreery; John Ondrasik of Five for Fighting; John Ortiz; Mary McCormack and many more. Auli’i Cravalho will open the show with a special performance of the national anthem.

THE FIRST MEMORIAL DAY (AKA DECORATION DAY):
PROPERLY CREDITING COURAGEOUS FORMER SLAVES

All American history books haven’t been revised—and some websites produced by various agencies of the federal government still have the “old” versions of the “first” Memorial or Decoration Day. One U.S. veterans website still credits Waterloo, New York, as well as some Confederate women’s groups in 1866 as the “firsts.” So, ReadTheSpirit celebrates the growing awareness of the role of courageous former slaves in 1865. Now, Wikipedia, the PBS network itself and a growing number of history textbooks credit the courageous former slaves in 1865 with the “first.”

As of Memorial Day 2013, Wikipedia now reports:

The first well-known observance of a Memorial Day-type observance after the Civil War was in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865. During the war, Union soldiers who were prisoners of war had been held at the Charleston Race Course; at least 257 Union prisoners died there and were hastily buried in unmarked graves. … Blacks in Charleston organized a May Day ceremony in 1865, which was covered by the New York Tribune and other national papers. The freedmen had cleaned up and landscaped the burial ground, building an enclosure and an arch labeled, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” Nearly 10,000 people, mostly freedmen, gathered on May 1 to commemorate the dead. Involved were 3,000 schoolchildren newly enrolled in freedmen’s schools, mutual aid societies, Union troops, and black ministers and white northern missionaries. Most brought flowers to lay on the burial field. Today the site is used as Hampton Park. Years later, the celebration would come to be called the “First Decoration Day” in the North.

ReadTheSpirit online magazine has been covering this progressive correction of our American historical record for a number of years. For more on David Blight’s work and the Charleston event in 1865—including the text of a contemporary newspaper story—see this earlier Memorial Day story we published.

HOLIDAY RECIPES & GREAT OLD SONGS!

RECIPES: Find an array of recipes fit for a picnic, a barbecue or a more elaborate meal from Food Network, Taste of Home, Food & Wine, AllRecipes and Kraft.

GREAT OLD SONGS: The Libary of Congress has one of the best online indexes for Memorial-themed reflection—featuring links to patriotic American songs. The Library of Congress index provides stories about the origin of these classics, plus many of these links lead to high-resolution images of early sheet music you can print. The list of nearly 30 venerable tunes includes: America the Beautiful, Anchors Aweigh, Columbia the Gem of the Ocean, Fanfare for the Common Man, Marines’ Hymn, This Land is Your Land and You’re a Grand Old Flag.

Memorial Day: Commemorate fallen soldiers, honor history and kick off summer

MONDAY, MAY 30: Patriotic parades, solemn ceremonies and the unofficial start of summer mark Memorial Day in the United States, observed annually on the last Monday of May. In some communities, Americans young and old line the streets for parades. Many take time to listen to veterans’ stories and pay respect to fallen soldiers.

If you are reading this column and care about the lives of veterans and their families, we recommend that you learn more about a book, 100 Questions and Answers about Veterans, produced by the Michigan State University School of Journalism.

Originally called Decoration Day, this national holiday began after the Civil War.

Who was “first”? Many claims have been made about which community first began honoring fallen soldiers in the Civil War era. Wikipedia summarizes several of them:

A claim was made in 1906 that the first Civil War soldier’s grave ever decorated was in Warrenton, Virginia, on June 3, 1861, implying the first Memorial Day occurred there. Women in Savannah, Georgia, decorated Confederate soldiers’ graves in 1862, but not Union soldiers’ graves. In 1863, the cemetery dedication at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was a ceremony of commemoration at the graves of dead soldiers. Local historians in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, claim that ladies there decorated soldiers’ graves on July 4, 1864. The first widely publicized observance of a Memorial Day-type observance after the Civil War was in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865.

The events in Charleston were documented by historian Stephen Blight. If you care to delve more deeply into that story of courageous former slaves who dared to hold the observance in Charleston in 1865, click on the historic photo or right here to jump back to some of our earlier coverage.

The first official Decoration Day at Arlington National Cemetery—May 30, 1868—drew a crowd of 5,000 people, including Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant. By 1890, each state in the North had made Decoration Day an official state holiday. Southern states didn’t follow suit until after World War I. (Wikipedia has details.) As the nation and its memorial holiday evolved, Decoration Day was recognized as a day of remembrance for all soldiers who had sacrificed their lives for their country. Gradually, the holiday became known as Memorial Day, and in 1968, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act moved the date from a fixed May 30 to the last Monday in May. That law took effect in 1971.

In cemeteries across the nation, small American flags are placed at each veteran’s grave for Memorial Day remembrances and, among some families, flowers are placed on fallen ancestors’ gravesites.

Don’t Miss the May 29 Concert

Each year, a National Memorial Day Concert is held in Washington D.C.—this year, at 3 p.m. on Sunday May 29, carried live by PBS and NPR. The program will be co-hosted by Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinise. The concert is broadcast to U.S. troops serving around the world on the American Forces Network, reaching more than 1,000 outlets in more than 175 countries and on board U.S. Navy ships. This year’s concert lineup includes The Beach Boys, Katharine McPhee and the National Symphony Orchestra.

Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut: Israeli memorial day and celebration of independence

MAY 10-12 in Western calendars: Back-to-back commemorations in Israel begin at sunset on Tuesday, May 10, this year. First, Yom Hazikaron is an Israeli memorial day recalling the cost of the nation’s freedom. Then, at sunset Wednesday, May 11, the solemn tone turns to celebration for Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s independence day.

Given the strong connection the global Jewish community feels to the establishment of Israel, these holidays are widely marked around the world.

The ReformJudaism.org website has an array of thought-provoking reflections on these two holidays. To put these observances in context:

Since the establishment of the State of Israel, four new holidays have been added to the Jewish calendar—Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day), Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day), and Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day). In Israel, these holidays are observed as national holidays.

The Israeli Knesset established Yom HaAtzmaut, Israeli Independence Day that marks the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948. It is observed on or near the 5th of Iyar in the Hebrew calendar, which usually falls in April. Then, the Knesset designated the day before Yom HaAtzmaut as Yom HaZikaron, a Memorial Day for soldiers who lost their lives fighting in the War of Independence and in other subsequent battles.

READINGS FOR THESE DAYS

An Israeli government website now provides an inspiring list of readings for individuals and families marking these observances. Some are widely known and used, but—even if you regularly mark these occasions—you may find some interesting texts here that you haven’t seen before.

Here is the Israeli selection of readings for Remembrance Day.

And, here is the list of readings for Independence Day.