Updated May 27, 2024 - Politics & Policy

What to know about Memorial Day and the meaning behind it

Illustration of an American flag with the stars replaced by gravestones reminiscent of Arlington National Cemetery with a soldier standing over one of the stones

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Memorial Day is seen as the unofficial start to summer and a long weekend for many, but the day is about more than cookouts, sales, and patriotic parades.

Why it matters: The federal holiday commemorates military personnel who lost their lives defending the country.

When is Memorial Day 2024?

Memorial Day is observed each year on the last Monday of May, which is May 27.

  • The holiday used to be marked each year on May 30 until 1971.

Memorial Day history

Flashback: Memorial Day was originally called "Decoration Day" and was recognized as early as the 1860s after the Civil War.

  • The history of Memorial Day is the subject of a longstanding academic debate, with dozens of cities and towns claiming to be the holiday's birthplace, Axios' Jennifer A. Kingson reports.
  • The focus of the holiday shifted after World War I to honor American soldiers who died in any war, not only the Civil War, according to History.com.

Memorial Day vs. Veterans Day

Zoom in: Veterans Day honors all who have served in the U.S. military and is considered a celebration of all veterans, living and dead.

  • Memorial Day is to recognize fallen military who died in service.

Don't say "Happy Memorial Day"

Reality check: Since Memorial Day is a solemn day to remember the fallen, the Wounded Warrior Project advises people to say: "Have a meaningful Memorial Day," not "Happy Memorial Day."

  • The group said it's "not appropriate to thank a service member for their service on this day, as it is a day for remembering and honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice."
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