Memorial Day in the United States is important for two very different cultural reasons. On the one hand, it’s an occasion to remember the members of the U.S. military who have died. On the other, it’s a day off from work that acts as the unofficial kickoff of summer with family barbecues and beach trips.
As you can probably guess, Memorial Day differs greatly from country to country. While the central idea is similar across cultures, Memorial Day evolved pretty much independently. Here’s a look at how the holiday in the United States compares to similar holidays in other countries.
The History Of U.S. Memorial Day
The concept of memorializing the dead is as old as human culture itself. One early commemoration was held in 431 BCE, featuring a speech by the Athenian general Pericles for those who had perished in the Peloponnesian War. There likely isn’t a direct line from the ancient Romans to the modern American Memorial Day, but the long legacy of these traditions shows that the commemoration of war dead is a common event in human history.
The idea behind Memorial Day is so common that there are dozens of places in the United States that claim to be the home to the “original” Memorial Day. While it is pretty clear that the first Memorial Day took place sometime around 1866 — the massive death toll of the U.S. Civil War was cause for much grief — it’s hard to know which one happened first. There are about 25 cities, in both the North and South, that believe they were the originator, including Macon, Georgia; Columbus, Mississippi; Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; and Richmond, Virginia.
These early ceremonies were often marked by a group of people — sometimes only women — visiting a cemetery and decorating the graves of the dead. For that reason, Memorial Day was actually called Decoration Day throughout most of its history.
The holiday became more nationwide in 1868, when General John A. Logan declared May 30 should be selected as Decoration Day. The date does not have any special significance, though there’s one unlikely theory that Logan chose it because it’s one of the only days of the year that doesn’t fall on the anniversary of a Civil War battle. The idea was quickly adopted and spread to the entirety of the country in 1890, though at the time it was a Civil War–specific commemoration. As the country faced more wars in the 20th century, the meaning of Decoration Day expanded to include all those who died.
For the first 100 years of Decoration Day, it was not an official holiday. In 1968, the U.S. government passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved certain holidays to Mondays, including Columbus Day, George Washington’s Birthday, Labor Day, Veterans Day and Memorial Day. The law took full effect in 1971, which marks the beginning of official Memorial Days. This move from May 30 to the last Monday in May has been controversial because some say it shifted the focus from a somber remembrance a relaxing, three-day weekend. There were a few attempts to change it back, but none have been successful so far.
Memorial Day Around The World
Memorial Days and similar celebrations appear all over the world, even though they have nothing to do with each other. Each country celebrates theirs on a different day, and each with different traditions. Here are a few — but certainly not all — days of remembrance from across the globe.
Perhaps the most widely recognized memorial holiday, Remembrance Day is celebrated in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth of Nations, which are the countries that were former colonies of the United Kingdom, including Canada, India, Australia and many others (though it’s not a public holiday in most). It’s held each year on November 11, which is the anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I.
The tradition, started in England in 1919 by King George V, was originally called Armistice Day, but it evolved to become a more general remembrance of all those who died in any war. Most of the traditions now take place on Remembrance Sunday, which is the Sunday closest to November 11.
November 11 has significance in most countries that were involved in World War I, even outside of the Commonwealth of Nations. France and Belgium both recognize it as Armistice Day, and it’s a military celebration in both countries. In Poland, it’s Independence Day, because Poland gained its independence at the end of the war. In the United States, November 11 is Veterans Day, but Remembrance Day is closer in purpose to U.S. Memorial Day.
In China, Taiwan and other nearby countries, the Qingming Festival is held 15 days after the Vernal Equinox. Sometimes, the festival is called Tomb-Sweeping Day in English, because the day is commemorated by visiting the graves of ancestors and loved ones in order to clean them up. Offerings of cold food may also be placed on the graves.
This holiday, which is over 2,500 years old but only officially became a holiday in mainland China in 2008, isn’t specifically about the war dead, but about anyone who has died. It’s a much less somber occasion than Memorial Day, and families will often use parts of the day to play games and spend time together.
Other Memorial Days
Anzac Day (New Zealand and Australia) — ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, and it started as a day of remembrance for those who died in the 1915 Gallipoli Campaign, which was part of World War I. Like many memorial days, the meaning has expanded to remember those who have died in any war, not just World War I.
National Day Of Commemoration (Ireland) — The Irish commemorate all of their countrymen who died in war on the Sunday closest to July 11, which is the day that the Irish War of Independence ended in 1921.
Hatyra Guni (Turkmenistan) — On January 12, 1881, Turkmen defended the Geok Tepe fortress against invading Russians. The country has marked January 12 as a national day of remembrance since 1991.
Dodenherdenking (The Netherlands) — The Dutch Remembrance Day is held on May 4, and is notably marked by two minutes of silence at 8 p.m. The day is followed by Liberation Day on May 5, which was the day that the occupation of Nazi Germany ended.