10 Things to Remember About Memorial Day

American flags are placed around the gardens at Boston Common in celebration of Memorial Day
American flags are placed around the gardens at Boston Common in celebration of Memorial Day
iStock.com/MichelGuenette

Memorial Day is much more than just a three-day weekend and a chance to get the year's first sunburn. It's a time to remember the men and women who sacrificed their lives for their country. Here are some facts to give the holiday some perspective.

1. Memorial Day began as a response to the Civil War.

Memorial Day was a response to the unprecedented carnage of the Civil War, in which a total of some 620,000 soldiers died between both sides. The loss of life and its effect on communities throughout the country led to several spontaneous commemorations of the dead:

In 1864, women from Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, put flowers on the graves of their fallen soldiers from the just-fought Battle of Gettysburg. The next year, a group of women decorated the graves of soldiers buried in a Vicksburg, Mississippi, cemetery.

In April 1866, women from Columbus, Mississippi, laid flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers. In the same month, in Carbondale, Illinois, 219 Civil War veterans marched through town in memory of the fallen to Woodlawn Cemetery, where Union hero Major General John A. Logan delivered the principal address. The ceremony gave Carbondale its claim to the first organized, community-wide Memorial Day observance.

Waterloo, New York began holding an annual community service on May 5, 1866. Although many towns claimed the title, it was Waterloo that won congressional recognition as the "Birthplace of Memorial Day."

2. Major General John A. Logan made the day official.

General Logan, the speaker at the Carbondale gathering, also was commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans. On May 5, 1868, he issued General Orders No. 11, which set aside May 30, 1868 "for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion."

The orders expressed hope that the observance would be "kept up from year to year while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades."

3. Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day.

The holiday was long known as Decoration Day for the practice of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths, and flags. The name Memorial Day goes back to 1882, but the older name didn't disappear until after World War II. It wasn't until 1967 that federal law declared "Memorial Day" the official name.

4. Memorial Day is more of a franchise than a national holiday.

Calling Memorial Day a "national holiday" is a bit of a misnomer. While there are 10 federal holidays created by Congress—including Memorial Day—they apply only to federal employees and the District of Columbia. Federal Memorial Day, established in 1888, allowed Civil War veterans, many of whom were drawing a government paycheck, to honor their fallen comrades without being docked a day's pay.

For the rest of us, our holidays were enacted state by state. New York was the first state to designate Memorial Day a legal holiday, in 1873. Most northern states had followed suit by the 1890s. The states of the former Confederacy were unenthusiastic about a holiday memorializing those who, in General Logan's words, "united to suppress the late rebellion." The South didn't adopt the May 30 Memorial Day until after World War I, by which time its purpose had been broadened to include those who died in all the country's wars.

In 1971, the Monday Holiday Law shifted Memorial Day from May 30 to the last Monday in May.

5. In 1868, future president James Garfield delivered a very, very long speech on the importance of Memorial Day.

James Garfield
Edward Gooch, Getty Images

On May 30, 1868, President Ulysses S. Grant presided over the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery—which, until 1864, was Confederate General Robert E. Lee's plantation.

Some 5000 people attended on a spring day which, The New York Times reported, was "somewhat too warm for comfort." The principal speaker was James A. Garfield, a Civil War general, Republican congressman from Ohio and future president.

"I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion," Garfield began, and then continued to utter them. "If silence is ever golden, it must be beside the graves of fifteen-thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem the music of which can never be sung." It went on like that for pages and pages.

As the songs, speeches and sermons ended, the participants helped to decorate the graves of the Union and Confederate soldiers buried in the cemetery.

6. The first unknown soldier is no longer unknown.

"Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God." That is the inscription on the Tomb of the Unknowns, established at Arlington National Cemetery to inter the remains of the first Unknown Soldier, a World War I fighter, on November 11, 1921. Unknown soldiers from World War II and the Korean War subsequently were interred in the tomb on Memorial Day 1958.

An emotional President Ronald Reagan presided over the interment of six bones, the remains of an unidentified Vietnam War soldier, on November 28, 1984. Fourteen years later, those remains were disinterred, no longer unknown. Spurred by an investigation by CBS News, the defense department removed the remains from the Tomb of the Unknowns for DNA testing.

The once-unknown fighter was Air Force pilot Lieutenant Michael Joseph Blassie, whose jet crashed in South Vietnam in 1972. "The CBS investigation suggested that the military review board that had changed the designation on Lt. Blassie's remains to 'unknown' did so under pressure from veterans' groups to honor a casualty from the Vietnam War," The New York Times reported in 1998.

Lieutenant Blassie was reburied near his hometown of St. Louis. His crypt at Arlington remains permanently empty.

7. The Vietnam veterans' rights group Rolling Thunder will make their final ride into D.C. in 2019.

Rolling Thunder members and motocyclists wait for the 'Blessing of the Bikes' to start at at the Washington National Cathedral, May 26, 2017 in Washington, DC
ANGELA WEISS, AFP/Getty Images

On Memorial Day weekend in 1988, 2500 motorcyclists rode into Washington, D.C. for the first Rolling Thunder rally to draw attention to Vietnam War soldiers still missing in action or prisoners of war. By 2002, the ride had swelled to 300,000 bikers, many of them veterans. There may have been a half-million participants in 2005, in what organizers bluntly call "a demonstration—not a parade."

A national veterans rights group, Rolling Thunder takes its name from the B-52 carpet-bombing runs during the war in Vietnam. But 2019 will mark the group's final ride, due to the logistics and expense of staging the event. "It's just a lot of money," Rolling Thunder co-founder and former Army Sergeant Artie Muller told Military.com.

8. Memorial Day has its own set of customs.

General Orders No. 11 stated that "in this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed," but over time several customs and symbols became associated with the holiday: It is customary on Memorial Day to fly the flag at half staff until noon, and then raise it to the top of the staff until sunset.

Taps, the 24-note bugle call, is played at all military funerals and memorial services. It originated in 1862 when Union General Dan Butterfield "grew tired of the 'lights out' call sounded at the end of each day," according to The Washington Post. Together with the brigade bugler, Butterfield made some changes to the tune.

Not long after, the melody was used at a burial for the first time when a battery commander ordered it played in lieu of the customary three rifle volleys over the grave. The battery was so close to enemy lines, and the commander was worried the shots would spark renewed fighting.

The World War I poem "In Flanders Fields," by John McCrea, inspired the Memorial Day custom of wearing red artificial poppies. In 1915, a Georgia teacher and volunteer war worker named Moina Michael began a campaign to make the poppy a symbol of tribute to veterans and for "keeping the faith with all who died." The sale of poppies has supported the work of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

9. Some states still celebrate a Confederate Memorial Day.

Several Southern states continue to set aside a day for honoring the Confederate dead, which is usually called Confederate Memorial Day. It's on the fourth Monday in April in Alabama, April 26 in Georgia, June 3 in Louisiana and Tennessee, the last Monday in April in Mississippi, May 10 in North and South Carolina, January 19 in Texas, and the last Monday in May in Virginia.

10. Each Memorial Day is a little different.

Ricky Parada sits at the grave of his little brother Cpl. Nicolas D. Paradarodriguez who was killed in Afghanistan, at Section 60 on Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery on May 28, 2012 in Arlington, Virginia
Mark Wilson, Getty Images

No question that Memorial Day is a solemn event. Still, don't feel too guilty about doing something frivolous (like having barbecue) over the weekend. After all, you weren't the one who instituted the Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1911. That credit goes to Indianapolis businessman Carl Fisher. The winning driver that day was Ray Harroun, who averaged 74.6 mph and completed the race in 6 hours and 42 minutes.

Gravitas returned on May 30, 1922, when the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated. Supreme Court Chief Justice (and former president) William Howard Taft dedicated the monument before a crowd of 50,000 people, segregated by race, and which included a row of Union and Confederate veterans. Also attending was Lincoln's surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln.

In 2000, Congress established a National Moment of Remembrance, which asks Americans to pause for one minute at 3 p.m. in an act of national unity. The time was chosen because 3 p.m. "is the time when most Americans are enjoying their freedoms on the national holiday."

This post originally appeared in 2008.

15 Spooky Halloween Traditions and Their Origins

EEI_Tony/iStock via Getty Images
EEI_Tony/iStock via Getty Images

Trick-or-treating, Jack-O'-Lanterns, and creepy costumes are some of the best traditions of Halloween. Share these sweet facts with friends as you sort through your candy haul.

1. Carving Halloween Jack-O'-Lanterns

Jack-o-lantern
kieferpix/iStock via Getty Images

Jack-O'-Lanterns, which originated in Ireland using turnips instead of pumpkins, are supposedly based on a legend about a man name Stingy Jack who repeatedly trapped the Devil and only let him go on the condition that Jack would never go to Hell. When he died, however, Jack learned that Heaven didn’t really want his soul either, so he was condemned to wander the Earth as a ghost for all eternity. The Devil gave Jack a lump of burning coal in a carved-out turnip to light his way. Eventually, locals began carving frightening faces into their own gourds to scare off evil spirits.

2. Seeing Ghosts

Celtic people believed that during the festival Samhain, which marked the transition to the new year at the end of the harvest and beginning of the winter, spirits walked the Earth. Later, the introduction of All Souls Day on November 2 by Christian missionaries perpetuated the idea of a mingling between the living and the dead around the same time of year.

3. Wearing Scary Costumes

With all these ghosts wandering around the Earth during Samhain, the Celts had to get creative to avoid being terrorized by evil spirits. To fake out the ghosts, people would don disguises so they would be mistaken for spirits themselves and left alone.

4. Going Trick-or-Treating, the Pagan Way

Trick-or-treaters
ChristinLola/iStock via Getty Images

There is a lot of debate around the origins of trick-or-treating. One theory proposes that during Samhain, Celtic people would leave out food to placate the souls and ghosts and spirits traveling the Earth that night. Eventually, people began dressing up as these otherworldly beings in exchange for similar offerings of food and drink.

5. Going Trick-or-Treating, the Scottish Way

Other researchers speculate that the candy bonanza stems from the Scottish practice of guising, itself a secular version of souling. In the Middle Ages, soulers, usually children and poor adults, would go to local homes and collect food or money in return for prayers said for the dead on All Souls’ Day. Guisers ditched the prayers in favor of non-religious performances like jokes, songs, or other “tricks.”

6. Going Trick-or-Treating, the American Way

Some sources argue that our modern trick-or-treating stems from belsnickling, a tradition in German-American communities where children would dress in costume and then call on their neighbors to see if the adults could guess the identities of the disguised guests. In one version of the practice, the children were rewarded with food or other treats if no one could identify them.

7. Getting Spooked by Black Cats

Black cat in autumn leaves
FromtheWintergarden/iStock via Getty Images

The association of black cats and spookiness actually dates all the way back to the Middle Ages, when these dark kitties were considered a symbol of the Devil. It didn’t help the felines’ reputations when, centuries later, accused witches were often found to have cats, especially black ones, as companions. People started believing that the cats were a witch’s “familiar”—animals that gave them an assist with their dark magic—and the two have been linked ever since.

8. Bobbing for Apples

This game traces its origins to a courting ritual that was part of a Roman festival honoring Pomona, the goddess of agriculture and abundance. Multiple variations existed, but the gist was that young men and women would be able to foretell their future relationships based on the game. When the Romans conquered the British Isles, the Pomona festival was blended with the similarly timed Samhain, a precursor to Halloween.

9. Decorating with Black and Orange

The classic Halloween colors can also trace their origins back to the Celtic festival Samhain. Black represented the “death” of summer while orange is emblematic of the autumn harvest season.

10. Playing Pranks

As a phenomenon that often varies by region, the pre-Halloween tradition, also known as “Devil’s Night”, is credited with a different origin depending on whom you ask. Some sources say that pranks were originally part of May Day celebrations. But Samhain, and eventually All Souls Day, seem to have included good-natured mischief. When Scottish and Irish immigrants came to America, they brought along the tradition of celebrating Mischief Night as part of Halloween, which was great for candy-fueled pranksters.

11. Lighting Candles and Bonfires

Campfire in the woods
James Mahan/iStock via Getty Images

These days, candles are more likely than towering traditional bonfires, but for much of the early history of Halloween, open flames were integral in lighting the way for souls seeking the afterlife.

12. Eating Candy Apples

People have been coating fruit in sugar syrups as a means of preservation for centuries. Since the development of the Roman festival of Pomona, the goddess often represented by and associated with apples, the fruit has had a place in harvest celebrations. But the first mention of candy apples being given out at Halloween didn’t occur until the 1950s.

13. Spotting Bats

It’s likely that bats were present at the earliest celebrations of proto-Halloween, not just symbolically but literally. As part of Samhain, the Celts lit large bonfires, which attracted insects. The insects, in turn, attracted bats, which soon became associated with the festival. Medieval folklore expanded upon the spooky connotation of bats with a number of superstitions built around the idea that bats were the harbingers of death.

14. Gorging on Candy

Halloween candy and brownies
VeselovaElena/iStock via Getty Images

The act of going door-to-door for handouts has long been a part of Halloween celebrations. But until the middle of the 20th century, the “treats” kids received were not necessarily candy. Toys, coins, fruit, and nuts were just as likely to be given out. The rise in the popularity of trick-or-treating in the 1950s inspired candy companies to make a marketing push with small, individually wrapped confections. People obliged out of convenience, but candy didn’t dominate at the exclusion of all other treats until parents started fearing anything unwrapped in the 1970s.

15. Munching on Candy Corn

According to some stories, a candymaker at the Wunderlee Candy Company in Philadelphia invented the revolutionary tri-color candy in the 1880s. The treats didn’t become a widespread phenomenon until another company brought the candy to the masses in 1898. At the time, candy corn was called Chicken Feed and sold in boxes with the slogan "Something worth crowing for." Originally just autumnal candy because of corn’s association with harvest time, candy corn became Halloween-specific when trick-or-treating rose to prominence in the U.S. in the 1950s.

25 Awesome Pet Halloween Costumes You Can Buy Right Now

Frisco
Frisco

As much fun as it is to dress up in a Halloween costume, it’s even more satisfying to throw one on your favorite four-legged companion. For one glorious day, you can turn your dog or cat into a vampire, a superhero, a Jedi, or even a taco, and it’s seen as completely normal. But picking out the right dog or cat costume can be difficult, especially with all of the choices available. Here, we’ve got 25 awesome cat and dog Halloween costumes you can get at Petco, Chewy, Target, and Walmart.

1. Wonder Woman Dog Costume

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Wonder Woman Dog Costume.
DC Comics

Turn your pooch into an Amazonian warrior with this ensemble that carries the colors and familiar tiara of Wonder Woman. Steve Trevor sold separately.

Buy it: Petco

2. Superman Illusion Dog Suit

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Superman Dog Costume.
DC Comics

Superpups won’t need a phone booth to dash into with this illusion suit that mimics that iconic transformation of Clark (Bark) Kent into Superman. (Note: Glasses do not have corrective lenses.)

Buy it: Petco 

3. Batman Dog T-Shirt

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Batman Dog Costume.
DC Comics

If your pet is low on patience when it comes to elaborate costumes, consider this minimalist approach. A Bat-symbol emblazoned on the back shows off support for vigilante justice.

Buy it: Petco 

4. DC's Batman Illusion Dog Suit

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Batman Dog Costume.
DC Comics

Your doggo probably never got to know their parents, which is at least one thing they have in common with Bruce Wayne. Avenge Gotham with this padded costume that gives your pet better abs than yours.

Buy it: Petco 

5. Batman Dog Bandana

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Batman Dog Costume.
DC Comics

The Bat-logo stands out against a yellow background in this pup-friendly kerchief for dogs that prefer sleeveless attire.

Buy it: Petco

6. Superman Dog Bandana

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Superman Dog Costume.
DC Comics

Is your heroic hound ready to cast off his glasses, quit his job as a newspaper reporter, and share his true identity with the world? This bandana is the classiest way to do it.

Buy it: Petco

7. Spider-Man Hoodie

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Spider-Man Dog Costume.
Marvel

While the debate over which Spider-Man did it best—Tom Holland, Andrew Garfield, or Tobey Maguire—rages on, the clear winner is about to be your dog wearing this costume.

Buy it: Petco

8. Jack-o'-Lantern Dog Hoodie

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Pumpkin Jack o Lantern Costume.
Bootique

Because carving jack-o'-lanterns is hard, turn your pup into a “pupkin” instead with this easy pullover Halloween hoodie.

Buy it: Petco

9. Cookie Monster

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Cookie Monster Dog Costume.
Pet Krewe

The perfect outfit for the pooch who won’t take their eyes off your cookie even though they definitely can’t have chocolate.

Buy it: Petco

10. Toast of the Town

Best Halloween Costumes for Dogs.
Bootique

This oh-so-extra outfit is ideal for trendy millennial pets who know that the secret to happiness lies between two thick slices of avocado toast. The “Flaming Dawg Hot Sauce” headband is just icing on the cake … er, hot sauce on the toast.

Buy it: Petco

11. King Purrington

Get the best cat halloween costumes of 2019.
Bootique

Your cat doesn't need to dress like royalty to know they’re in charge, so let this king costume serve as a reminder to everyone else in the house. Just don't be surprised if your cat starts acting haughtier than usual after sporting a cape and crown for a few hours.

Buy it:vPetco

12. Lion Mane

Lion mane cat costume.
Pet Krewe

Halloween is a chance for your pet to look as ferocious as they feel all year long. But be warned: This lion mane costume will probably illicit more "awws" than screams.

Buy it: Petco

13. "Witch, Please!" Dog Hat

Witch hat dog Halloween costume.
Bootique

Spookiness, sassiness: This witch hat for dogs—complete with a lime-green wig and the words "Witch, please!" emblazoned on the band—has it all.

Buy it: Petco

14. Teddy Bear Dog Costume

Teddy bear dog costume for Halloween 2019.
Bootique

Your dog can become a bit more squeezable when you dress it up like a plush teddy bear—complete with little arms, legs, and ears.

Buy it: Petco

15. Dog & Cat Sombrero

Cat and dog sombreros for Halloween 2019.
Frisco

The best part about this sombrero for your cat or dog is that there’s no reason why you can’t strap it on their head even after Halloween is over. They may hate you for it, but the look on their face will make a great photo op (see above).

Buy it: Chewy

16. Cat Devil Costume

Cat devil costume for Halloween 2019.
Frisco

Every cat has a touch of evil in them, so indulge them this Halloween with the set of horns they've earned throughout the year.

Buy it: Chewy

17. Cat & Dog Vampire Cape

A dog dressed in a vampire Halloween costume.
Frisco

Simple but effective—turn your pet into an elegant count this Halloween with this red-lined black cape.

Buy it: Chewy

18. Taco Dog & Cat Costume

Taco dog Halloween costume for 2019.
Frisco

Your favorite pet dressed as your favorite food. Best of all, the entire taco costume comes in one piece, so you don’t have to worry about assembly being a hassle.

Buy it: Chewy

19. Dog or Cat Business Suit

Business suit dog costume.
Rubie's Costume Company

Chances are your pet will never have a high-powered office job, but that doesn’t mean they can’t dress the part. And don’t worry, the tie is attached to the costume, so your pup won't have to learn the Half-Windsor.

Buy it: Chewy

20. Skeleton Hoodie

Skeleton hoodie Halloween costume for dogs.
Hyde & EEK! Boutique

You really can’t go wrong with a classic like this skeleton hoodie. And with the ear holes in the hood, your pup will be comfy all Halloween long.

Buy it: Target

21. Ewok Dog Costume

Star Wars Halloween costumes for pets.
Rubie's Costume Company

Even the most jaded of Star Wars fans won’t be able to resist this simple costume that turns your dog into a fierce and fuzzy protector of Endor.

Buy it: Target

22. Jedi Robe

Star Wars Jedi Halloween costume for dogs.
Rubie's Costume Company.

A costume for a more civilized age, this Jedi pet robe is easy to slip on and adds a graceful elegance to any dog’s life. Just keep an eye on their paws—you don’t want to fall for that mind trick nonsense.

Buy it: Target

23. Jurassic World T. rex

Dinosaur Halloween Costume for Dogs.
Rubie's Costume Company

Cue the John Williams, because this T. rex costume is perfect for any dino-lovin’ Halloween freak out there. The kicker? The tiny arms, of course.

Buy it: Walmart

24. Yoda

Yoda Halloween costume for pets.
Rubie's Costume Company

You already know your pet is wise beyond its years, so slapping a Yoda costume on it is only natural. If you can’t fathom getting your cat or dog into the robe, you can opt for just the Yoda ears, too.

Buy it: Walmart

25. Blue Monster

Best dog and cat Halloween costumes.
Rubie's Costume Company

This Halloween, turn your pet into a furry beast—more so than usual. And if you don’t like the shock of bright blue hair, you can go for the pink version. It’s your money; embarrass your pup as you please.

Buy it: Walmart

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

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