The History of Memorial Day:
What It Is and What It Means
For most of us, Memorial Day is a celebration of a three-day weekend, but much like other federal holidays, it all started with a purpose that had nothing to do with backyards or hot dogs. So while you're fumbling over cooking utensils and getting the grill ready for your barbecue, here are a few facts about Memorial Day to think about.
Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day) started after the American Civil War to honor both Union and Confederate soldiers who died while serving in the armed forces. Before the war ended, women from both sides decorated the graves of fallen soldiers, but there was no official day for recognition.
Toward the end of the war, following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in April of 1865, there were many more ceremonies held to honor fallen soldiers. The first widely publicized commemoration was held in May of 1865 in Charleston, SC. But Boalsburg, PA, claims to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, having started decorating soldiers' graves in 1864. By 1868, May 30 was selected as Decoration Day and ceremonies at hundreds of cemeteries were held across the United States.
By the end of World War II, the holiday expanded to honor all soldiers who died while serving in the United States' armed forces. Memorial Day was declared the official name in 1968, but it wasn't until 1971 that the law went into effect to move the holiday to the last Monday in May, resulting in a three-day weekend.
From the beginning, flowers have been a symbol of Memorial Day; graves of soldiers were decorated with flowers to honor them. Though the first Memorial or Decoration ceremonies were held in April, Major General John Logan of the Union Army declared Decoration Day held on May 30 because, it is believed, that is when flowers would be in bloom all over the country.
For Memorial Day 1951, the Boy Scouts of America started the tradition of placing American flags on each of the 150,000 graves at the Jefferson National Barracks Cemetery in St. Louis, MO. The idea spread and since the late 1950s, flags have been placed at gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery every Memorial Day. All American flags are supposed to be flown at half-staff until noon when raised, but it's unclear of any symbolism of the gesture beyond tradition.
Parades are held across the country to observe the holiday, but Memorial Day weekend has transformed into the weekend to kickoff summer. Because the holiday has lost its original meaning for many, in 2000 The National Moment of Remembrance Act was signed into law. 3:00 p.m. local time was selected for people across the United States to stop what they're doing for a moment of silence to honor soldiers who died while on active duty.
Memorial Day has evolved over the past 150 years or so. But while the Memorial Day barbecue has become one of the more popular traditions, burgers and beer aren't really why we get the last Monday in May off work.