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Memorial day explained

Memorial Day Explained for Non-Americans – A Quick Guide

What is Memorial Day — the US Public Holiday taking place on May 25 — all about?

For expats a country’s national holidays — and how people mark them — can be a huge insight into your new home’s culture and way of life. Understanding the background to the public holidays celebrated your new country, and how you can mark them, can be an important part of your integration.

With that in mind, it is currently “Memorial Day Weekend” here in the United States – a holiday unique to the USA, and therefore an opportunity for me to try to better understand my new home. If the reaction of people on Twitter is anything to go by the holiday is predominantly about barbecues and parties:

Clearly there is much more to Memorial Day than this. So what is it all about?

What is Memorial Day?

Falling on the last Monday of May, Memorial Day remembers the men and women who have died in the service of the US armed forces. Originally instigated to commemorate the soldiers who died fighting the American Civil War, after World War One it was extended to honor all Americans who died while in military service.

Originally it was marked on May 30, irrespective of the day of the week. It was only in 1968, and the passing of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, that it fell always on the last Monday of May. The change was controversial then and remains so now – veterans groups are concerned that more Americans are associating the holiday with the first long weekend of summer rather than its intended purpose of honoring the country’s war dead.

Indeed, as those excitable Twitter posts suggest, while many Americans will visit cemeteries and attend services of remembrance, many others will likely mark the weekend with barbecues, parties and fireworks. Of course, it is also perfectly possible that many people will do both.

How Does Memorial Day Differ From How Other Countries Remember Their Fallen Soldiers?

Whereas America’s Memorial Day is rooted in its deadliest conflict — the American Civil War – in many other countries around the world, Britain included, Memorial Day-style observances remember an even deadlier conflict: World War One.

In many of the countries that were heavily involved in the First World War, therefore, the national day of remembrance falls on the day of the Armistice – the ceasefire signed between the Allies and Germany which took effect on November 11 1918 (the US marks this day with Veterans Day – a day for marking the contribution of all service men and women, not just those who died in action).

“In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place: and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.”

The day isn’t a public holiday in the United Kingdom, though it is widely marked. Many people will wear a red poppy (as per a tradition inspired by the Canadian poet John McCrae’s In Flanders Field) and a two-minute silence is widely observed in schools, offices and shops.

How Should Non-Americans in America Mark Memorial Day?

In contrast to similar remembrance traditions in other countries, then, Memorial Day contains a much larger element of celebration. It clearly isn’t synonymous with Britain’s very sombre Remembrance Sunday, for example.

So, how should you mark the day as a non-American? Simply do as the Americans do. Take some time to personally reflect on the sacrifices made by soldiers in war, perhaps attend a local march or parade… and then get some beers, light the barbeque and enjoy the first long weekend of summer!

What are the main national holidays where you are? Do you do anything to mark them? If so, how? Share your thoughts in the comments.


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