Memorial Day. This is one of a few heavily celebrated holidays in the US. We usually enjoy the holiday as a family holiday - cookouts are the order of the weekend - and it marks the start of the summer season.
But...that's not really what this holiday is all about. Shortly after the Civil War, we established Decoration Day as a day to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers. It actually started out being May 30th to coincide with when many flowers would be in their seasonal bloom.
It's important to understand the emotional state of the nation that brought this day of commemoration to the forefront of our leadership. We had just finished the civil war and more than 600,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed during the war. There were only some 31 million people living in the US at this time; that means roughly 5% of the US population was killed. The effects were enormous, truly giving the people of the United States reason to pause. To get a feeling for what this would be like today, imagine 6 million people being killed over a 3 year period; everyone touched by the losses of a controversial war with complex causes (it was about much more than just slavery, including economics and state rights). What's more, these figures are just estimates developed during a time when there were very few real records kept and some historians estimate the losses were MUCH higher (closer to 750,000 or more). More Americans died during this conflict than any other in the history of the United States until World War II (1941-1945) and there were far more people in the US by that time (133 million).
The first, large, national observance was held at Arlington National Cemetery in 1868. There were some local observances that occurred earlier and the official "birth" of the day was given to Waterloo, NY, where a formal ceremony on May 5, 1866 honored local war veterans.
After World War I, the holiday was expanded to honor those who had fallen in all American wars and in 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day as a national holiday, giving the day its new name and formally dating it as the last Monday in May. (Many older Americans still call it "Decoration Day".) Americans visit the final resting places of our fallen soldiers, placing flowers and small American flags around their burial markers.
In 2000, recognizing that Americans had lost the true meaning of the day, Congress passed the "National Moment of Remembrance Act" to further encourage the people to give something back to their country on Memorial Day. The act asks Americans, wherever they are at 3pm local time on Memorial day, to join in an act of national unity by observing a moment of silence.
An interesting sidebar...may states in the southern half of the US also have a "Confederate Decoration Day" or "Confederate Heroes Day". This day honors those who died fighting for the Confederate States of America during the civil war. It is very controversial, as one might expect, as are other Confederate holidays.
As with many holidays, modern society has forgotten the true meaning of the day. Memorial Day isn't just a time for families to gather and have a cookout. It isn't just a day off or when the pool opens. It's a time of remembrance; a time for us to sit back and reflect upon our freedoms and the high cost of those freedoms, honoring the many men and women who fought to protect those freedoms. We can never forget the sacrifices that have been made to ensure the privileges allowed to the United States.