Happy Memorial Day

Take a moment to learn the true meaning of Memorial Day

Happy Memorial Day! In addition to its associations with white pants, barbecues, parades, and the unofficial start to the summer season, this annual holiday observed on the last Monday of May honors the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military.

Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day when it was first celebrated in the mid-late 1800s. After the Civil War ended in 1865, Americans began holding yearly tributes to fallen soldiers which included decorating their graves with flowers. It wasn’t until more than a century later, though, that it became an official federal holiday in 1971.

Many Americans observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings, and participating in parades.

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The birthplace of Memorial Day and early observances 

The Civil War which ended in the spring of 1865 claimed more lives than any conflict in U.S. history and required the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries.

By the late 1860s, Americans in various towns and cities had begun holding springtime tributes to these countless fallen soldiers decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers.

Did you know? Each year on Memorial Day a national moment of remembrance takes place at 3:00 p.m. local time.

National D-Day Memorial, Bedford, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It is unclear where exactly this tradition originated; numerous different communities may have independently initiated the memorial gatherings. And some records show that one of the earliest Memorial Day commemorations was organized by a group of formerly enslaved people in Charleston, South Carolina less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered in 1865. Nevertheless, in 1966 the federal government declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day.

Waterloo—which first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866—was chosen because it hosted an annual, community-wide event during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.

Cowpens National Battlefield, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Decoration Day

On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month. “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated 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 and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land,” he proclaimed.

The date of Decoration Day, as he called it, was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle.

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Civil War soldiers buried there.

Many Northern states held similar commemorative events and reprised the tradition in subsequent years; by 1890 each one had made Decoration Day an official state holiday. Southern states, on the other hand, continued to honor the dead on separate days until after World War I.

Saratoga National Historic Park, New York © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History of Memorial Day

Memorial Day, as Decoration Day gradually came to be known, originally honored only those lost while fighting in the Civil War. But during World War I the United States found itself embroiled in another major conflict and the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars including World War II, The Vietnam War, The Korean War, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For decades, Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30, the date General Logan had selected for the first Decoration Day. But in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees. The change went into effect in 1971. The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday.

Chickamauga and Chattanooga Military Park, Georgia and Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Memorial Day Traditions and Rituals 

Cities and towns across the United States host Memorial Day parades each year, often incorporating military personnel and members of veterans’ organizations. Some of the largest parades take place in Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C.

Americans also observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries and memorials. Some people wear a red poppy in remembrance of those fallen in war—a tradition that began with a World War I poem (In Flanders Fields by John McCrae).

National Museum of the Pacific War, Fredericksburg, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On a less somber note, many people take weekend trips or throw parties and barbecues on the holiday, perhaps because Memorial Day weekend—the long weekend comprising the Saturday and Sunday before Memorial Day and Memorial Day itself—unofficially marks the beginning of summer.

Worth Pondering…

I think of a hero as someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom.

—Bob Dylan

National Park Service Offer 5 Free Entrance Days in 2022

Five days in 2022 will be free of entrance fees at national parks that charge them

There will be five days in 2022 when you can enter for free a national park that normally charges an entrance fee.

According to a news release from the National Park Service, the free admission days “are designed to encourage discovery and visitation of the country’s variety of national parks. With at least one in every state, national parks are accessible places to visit to refresh body, mind, and spirit.”

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The free entrance dates for 2022 are: 

  • Monday, January 17 –  Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
  • Saturday, April 16 – First Day of  National Park Week
  • Thursday, August 4 – Anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act
  • Saturday, September 24 –  National Public Lands Day
  • Friday, November 11 –  Veterans Day
Joshua Tree National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Whether on an entrance fee-free day or throughout the year, we encourage everyone to discover their national parks and the benefits that come from spending time outdoors,” said National Park Service Director Chuck Sams.

“National parks are for everyone and we are committed to increasing access and providing opportunities for all to experience the sense of wonder, awe, and refreshment that comes with a visit to these treasured landscapes and sites.”

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In honor of the Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., National Park Service sites will waive entrance fees for everyone on Monday, January 17, 2022, as the first fee-free day of the year. Commemorated on the third Monday of January every year, it is also a day of service when hundreds of volunteers participate in service projects at parks across the country. This is the only federal holiday designated as a national day of service to encourage all Americans to volunteer to improve their communities. Many national parks traditionally host a variety of service projects that people can sign up for as volunteers.

Related: These National Parks are ALWAYS FREE

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Celebrate National Park Week 2022 from April 16 to 24. Parks across the country will host a variety of special programs, events, and digital experiences. Entrance fees are waived on April 16 to kick off National Park Week and encourage everyone to enjoy their national parks.

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina and Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great American Outdoors Act established the National Parks and Public Lands Legacy Restoration Fund which uses revenue from energy development to provide up to $1.9 billion a year for five years to provide needed maintenance for critical facilities and infrastructure in national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, recreation areas, and American Indian schools. The National Park Service which has one of the largest asset portfolios of all federal agencies receives 70 percent of the Legacy Restoration Fund each year.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Established in 1994 and held annually on the fourth Saturday in September, National Public Lands Day is traditionally the nation’s largest single-day volunteer effort. It celebrates the connection between people and green space in their community and encourages the use of open space for education, recreation, and health benefits. This year, National Public Lands Day falls on September 24.

Related: National Parks Inspire Love of Nature

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Park Service invites all visitors to remember our veterans by visiting any National Park Service site for free on Veterans Day (November 11). Many national parks have direct connections to the American military—there are dozens of battlefields, military parks, and historic sites that commemorate and honor the service of American veterans. In addition, every national park is part of our collective identity that defines who we are and where we came from as a nation. They are tactile reminders of the values, ideals, and freedoms that our veterans protect.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National parks have something for everyone. Recreational experiences can range from a relaxing picnic to a thrilling white-water adventure and everything in between including hiking, camping, fishing, stargazing, swimming, and paddling. Demonstrations and programs at cultural sites connect us with traditions from the past. Notable people and their contributions to society are remembered at historical sites. Chances to view wildlife in their natural habitats and see geological wonders provide lasting memories.

Vanderbilt Estate National Historic Site, New York © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors are encouraged to begin their trip to a national park with a stop at NPS.gov or the NPS app to help plan and prepare. Online you can find tips to help you Plan Like a Park Ranger and Recreate Responsibly. It is important to know before you go what is open and available, especially if you are interested in staying overnight. There are maps, updated conditions, and suggested activities to help you decide where to go and what to do. 

Related: Guide to Adventure Activities in National Parks

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Regardless of the activity, visitors should follow Leave No Trace principles. Each of us plays a vital role in protecting the national parks. As we spend time outdoors in the natural world and in the wilderness it’s important to be conscious of the effects our actions may have on plants, animals, other people, and even entire ecosystems. Following the Leave No Trace Seven Principles, we can help minimize those impacts. They can be applied anywhere, at any time, while taking part in recreational activities.

  • Plan ahead and prepare
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  • Dispose of waste properly
  • Leave what you find
  • Minimize campfire impacts
  • Respect wildlife
  • Be considerate of other visitors
Congaree National Park, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The entrance fee waiver for the fee-free days applies only to National Park Service entrance fees and does not cover amenity or user fees for activities such as camping, boat launches, transportation, or special tours.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most national parks do not have entrance fees at all. Out of more than 400 national parks, approximately 110 have admission fees that range from $5 to $35. The money from entrance fees remain in the National Park Service and 80-100 percent stays in the park where collected. The funds are used to support the visitor experience by providing programs and services, habitat restoration, and building maintenance and repair. 

Related: How National Parks Saved Us?

Padre Island National Seashore, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 2020, $170 million was collected in entrance fees. Entrance fees, along with other funding sources such as the Great American Outdoors Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, Federal Transportation Program, and the Cyclic Maintenance program are part of a concerted effort to address the extensive maintenance backlog in national parks.

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Free annual passes to more than 2,000 federal recreation areas, including all national parks, are available for members of the U.S. Military and their dependents, U.S. Military veterans, Gold Star Families, fourth-grade students, and eligible NPS volunteers. U.S. Citizens with a permanent disability can obtain a free lifetime pass. U.S. Citizens 62 years and older can purchase an $ 80-lifetime pass or a $20 annual pass. And the annual $80  America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass  is a great option for those who visit multiple parks each year.

Related: Why America Needs More National Parks

Worth Pondering…

The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.

—Jimmy Im