Kids always look forward to Memorial Day. It's a three-day weekend celebration of barbecues and family fun — not to mention the fact that it's pretty much the kick-off for summertime. And while it's totally fine to let our kids revel in these childhood simple pleasures, it's also super important that they know what the true meaning behind Memorial Day is.
Again, the true purpose of Memorial Day is one of those “blink, and you’ll miss it” kind of things since the holiday has been quickly overshadowed by early summer activities. But do a little digging, and you’ll see that Memorial Day is one of the most important holidays that we have on our calendar — especially if you or a family member has served our country.
Memorial Day first began as a holiday called Decoration Day, where graves of soldiers were decorated with wreaths, flowers and flags. This day of remembrance to honor those who died in service — started after so many lives were lost in the Civil War — was proclaimed a holiday by Gen. John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, made up of former Union soldiers, on May 30, 1868.
It was during the very first Decoration Day in 1868, where 5,000 people came to commemorate the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried at the Arlington National Cemetery, that then-Ohio Congressman James Garfield said, “We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”
The popularity and the importance of what would become known as Memorial Day soon spread through the North and South following the Civil War. As World War II came around, the holiday became part of the nation’s identity during wartime. Memorial Day was officially named a U.S. holiday in 1967. And in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Holiday Act that marked Memorial Day as the last Monday in May (instead of the previously observed May 30 holiday) to give all of us a celebratory three-day weekend before summer begins.
If you’re anywhere near a body of water — or have access to a backyard kiddie pool — then you have your Memorial Day cut out for you. But along with the early summer fun, there are still several ways to weave patriotic themes and times of remembrance into your jam-packed weekend schedule.
Here’s an interesting thing about kids: They observe and retain far more than we give them credit for. Even seemingly “grown-up” Memorial Day activities can have a long-lasting impact and give young children a greater appreciation for our country. We suggest taking the whole family along to commemorate and observe those who have lost their lives in service — by placing flags or flowers on graves, especially those of family members; flying the American flag at your home or business at half-mast until noon; visiting local monuments dedicated to soldiers, marines and sailors; attending a Memorial Day parade; and especially, participating in the National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day in your local time zone.
Taking a few moments to remember is important, but there are many more interactive ways to engage your kids on this patriotic holiday:
While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with using Memorial Day weekend to relax at home with the kids (since we parents rarely get to do that), please don’t forget what this important holiday is really all about. Taking a few minutes to explain its purpose to your kids, and even throwing in an activity or two, is a small way to thank those who have sacrificed for our freedom.
Updated by Sarah Long on 5/16/17.
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