American Holidays: Memorial Day

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 11631

Sometimes, we forget people who've done something special for us. This is particularly sad when those people gave their lives for their country. Learn about this special day and find your own heroes!


Social Studies

Social Studies
learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • As spring comes to a close, is there anything special your family does to celebrate the arrival of summer?

family trip

  • If so, is there a particular date on which you hold the celebration?

If you have not looked at the five previous Related Lessons in this American Holidays series, start in the right-hand sidebar.

When you think of Memorial Day, you probably think of a day free from schoolwork where you get together with friends and family for a big cookout.

Oftentimes, pools will open on Memorial Day; so maybe you have memories of taking your first visit to the pool. This holiday has become a festive day when American families kick off the start of the summer season.

hello, summer written on the beach sand

But Memorial Day means so much more than hot dogs, swimming pools, and watermelon. It is an opportunity to remember those who sacrificed their lives in service to the United States.

Watch History of the Holidays: History of Memorial Day |History to learn more about this special day!

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As the video explained, the Civil War was the bloodiest war in all of American history. More men were killed during the Civil War than in all the other wars involving the United States combined.

burial of the dead on the Antietam battlefield, 1862

Image from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

National cemeteries, places where those killed in military conflict are laid to rest, were built throughout the country to bury those lost during the Civil War.

On May 5, 1866, almost one year after the war ended, people gathered at a cemetery near Waterloo, New York, to decorate the graves of the soldiers who lost their lives in battle. Similar ceremonies were held each spring throughout the nation.

On May 30, 1868, a nationwide day of remembrance was held. More than 5,000 people gathered at Arlington National Cemetery, the largest national cemetery in the United States, and decorated the graves of 20,000 soldiers who had been laid to rest there.

Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day 2008

Image by Remember, via Wikimedia Commons, was released into the public domain.

Similar ceremonies were also held at smaller cemeteries throughout the country on that same day. The day was called Decoration Day. By 1890, each state had recognized Decoration Day to commemorate the fallen soldiers.

Up until World War I, Decoration Day was used as a day to honor those lost during the Civil War. After World War I, the name of the holiday was changed to Memorial Day, and the day was used to recognize those who had lost their lives in all U.S. conflicts.


The day of remembrance was held annually on May 30 until 1971. In the Related Lesson on Presidents Day, you learned about the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.

  • What do you remember about the Uniform Monday Holiday Act?

The Uniform Monday Holiday Act moved many national holidays to specific Mondays to prevent people from taking an extended leave from work. Memorial Day was one of the holidays moved to a set Monday.

Since 1971, Memorial Day has been celebrated on the last Monday in May.

Sadly, many Americans have forgotten the true meaning of Memorial Day. While many hang American flags outside their businesses and homes, the holiday is mostly recognized as the start of summer.

Most people are given the day off from work and school. Families usually host large cookouts and visit the pool. Stores host big start-of-summer sales events.

Yet, through all the festivities, it is so very important to take the time to acknowledge the fallen soldiers or decorate their graves as the holiday originally intended.

young man honors a fallen soldier

  • What are some things your family can do to help return Memorial Day to its original purpose?

Continue on to the Got It? section to learn more about Memorial Day.

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