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What is Memorial Day and why is it celebrated?

The exact dates of the first Memorial Day are unclear but a more than 150-year fixture in the US calendar will be marked once again on 31 May 2021.

CONCORD, NORTH CAROLINA - MAY 30: Crewmembers of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, display the American flag during a moment of silence foe Memorial Day during the NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 30, 2021 in Concord, Nor
Jared C. TiltonAFP

Memorial Day 2021 will be marked by US citizens on Monday 31 May, a national tradition that has been part of the annual calendar for over 150 years. Although the coronavirus pandemic is slowly being overcome, certain restrictions across the country will mean Americans have to improvise somewhat for what is the unofficial start of summer.

Memorial Day 2021: some history

Memorial Day was first observed in 1868 after the end of the American Civil War. By some accounts a group of freed slaves in the defeated Confederacy held the first Memorial Day in 1865 in Charleston but a year later the federal authorities held a ceremony at Waterloo, New York and in 1966 it was enshrined as the birthplace of Memorial Day, becoming an official national holiday in 1971. However, some 25 locations have laid claim to be the source of the original Memorial Day; the tradition of the parade is widely accepted to have been inaugurated in Rochester, Wisconsin.

Originally known as Decoration Day, the holiday is held in remembrance of the US military personnel who have lost their lives in conflicts on home soil and abroad. The Civil War (1861-65) remains the bloodiest conflict in US history with some estimates of fatalities reaching 750,000.

Memorial Day was held on 30 May until 1970, that date being chosen by Union General John A. Logan in May 1868 because it did not coincide with the anniversary of any Civil War battle. From 1971 onwards it has been held on the final Monday of May.

Veterans Day, Armed Forces Day

While Memorial Day is staged in remembrance of those who have lost their lives in action, Veterans Day is held on 11 November to honour all of the US servicemen and women who have been in the forces and were later discharged. It was originally known as Armistice Day, in line with European countries to mark the end of the First World War on 11 November 1918, with the name being changed to Veterans Day in 1954.

Armed Forces Day, which takes place on the third Saturday in May, honours all current personnel across the six branches of the US military.


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