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With June fast approaching and the warm weather just within our reach, many people look to Memorial Day as that unofficial mark to the beginning of summer – complete with a beach day, barbecue, and three-day weekend. But we are often so busy gathering around the grill or lounging by the pool that we forget the real significance of the day which is so much more than some time off.

Memorial Day, formerly known as Decoration Day, is a day to remember those in the American armed forces who have given up their lives in service to our country. The holiday dates back to the end of the Civil War, originally commemorating the quarter of a million lives lost during that four-year period.

While independent memorial gatherings were most likely held before 1968, the first noted recognition of the day came from General John A. Logan, a former Union Army general, and political leader. He designated May 30th of that year as a day to decorate the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers and honor their sacrifice. Because of Logan’s position and prominence within the Union Army, the holiday was initially practiced mostly by those in the North. But subsequent to the first and second World Wars, Memorial Day came to be a date that honored ALL fallen U.S. soldiers and was celebrated throughout the country. It wasn’t until Congress implemented the Uniform Holiday Act in 1971 that Memorial Day became a federal holiday and was moved to its current date of the final Monday in May – thus your long weekend.

Memorial Day has come to mean vastly different things for many people. For those who have recently lost a loved one, it is a time of grief and sorrow, while for others it may serve as a reminder that many before now have lost their lives to provide us with the opportunities we now possess. But for all of us, it can prove that a country once divided can stand as one to honor our fallen heroes.

In present times, many continue the tradition of visiting and decorating the graves of soldiers and the memorials dedicated to them. The President or Vice President presents a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, showing honor to the many who have died and went unidentified, and flags throughout the country are placed at half-staff until noon. A new tradition has even come into being where people are asked to stop what they are doing at 3 pm to reflect on the meaning of the occasion. So while it is by no means bad to enjoy the time off that accompanies Memorial Day, it is important to understand the true meaning of the date and recognize that for many, it holds great significance. Use it as an opportunity to remember those who have died for our country and be sure to hold the soldiers in your life just a little bit closer.