Observed on the last Monday in May, Memorial Day is much more than the unofficial start to summer and a chance to get 30 percent off another swimsuit you won’t wear. The national holiday is an official remembrance of Americans killed while serving in the military.
The commemoration dates back to1864, when a group of Pennsylvania women laid flowers on the graves of soldiers killed in the Civil War. But Waterloo, New York is considered the birthplace of modern Memorial Day — in 1866, it held the “first, formal, complete, well-planned, village-wide observance of a day entirely dedicated to honoring the war dead,” according to former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller.
What does Memorial Day celebrate?
A national holiday was first suggested by General John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans’ group of Union soldiers. (Washington D.C.’s Logan Circle was later named for him.) In 1868, he proposed that May 30 become “Decoration Day,” 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.” The original holiday was solemn and mournful, but elements of celebration for the soldiers’ cause — the end of the Civil War and preservation of the United States — began to supplant the sadness, with festive tunes like “Rally ‘Round the Flag” and “Dixie” played instead of funereal dirges.
A federal holiday wasn’t officially established until 1971, by which time it had come to be known as Memorial Day. It was set as the last Monday in May. And people were already worrying it had become insufficiently respectful. In 1972, “Time” lamented that Memorial Day weekend had become “a three-day nationwide hootenanny that seems to have lost much of its original purpose.”
Perhaps with that in mind, in 2000, the U.S. Congress passed legislation declaring that at 3pm each Memorial Day, a moment of silence be held. But don’t feel too guilty about having a good time over the weekend — revelry has been a part of the holiday almost since its inception.