Every year Memorial Day brings people together in the United States to honor fallen service members on the last Monday in May or does it? Since its post-Civil War beginnings, the holiday has changed considerably and now may be best known as the start of summer vacation season—prompting some critics to call for moving the date away from a three-day weekend.
Unlike Veterans Day on November 11, which honors all who have served their country, Memorial Day is set aside for special remembrance of those who laid down their lives for U.S. national defense.
Despite the modern spirit of patriotic camaraderie, Memorial Day has its roots in one of the most divisive events in U.S. history: the Civil War.
Soon after the bloody conflict ceased, General John A. Logan—commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans—called for a holiday to be observed every year on May 30.
At the time, that holiday was known as Decoration Day, because Logan wanted to honor the fallen by “strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating, the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.”
But many Civil War memorial ceremonies actually predated Logan’s first Decoration Day, which was held at Arlington National Cemetery in 1868. More than two dozen U.S. cities claim to have hosted the first Decoration Day or Memorial Day.
In 1966, the U.S. Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson recognized Waterloo, New York, as the “birthplace” of Memorial Day, based on a May 5, 1866, service held to honor local veterans, which included citywide events and the closings of local businesses.
The first national Memorial Day holiday, designated by Congress, was held in 1971.
Memorial Day a “Sacrosanct” Observance
In the years just after the Civil War, Northern and Southern Memorial Day services didn’t necessarily honor the same soldiers.
But since World War I, the holiday has gathered the nation together to honor all men and women who’ve lost their lives in conflict, from the American Revolution to the present day battles in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Over the decades the name of the holiday has shifted as well, with Memorial Day gradually becoming the common moniker.
Now in cemeteries across the United States veterans and citizens alike hold ceremonies, and the graves of the fallen are adorned with flowers and U.S. flags.
“We believe that Memorial Day is a sacrosanct national observance for the entire country,” said John Raughter, communications director for the American Legion, a nonprofit organization of veterans helping veterans.
Smaller local observances, in which citizens honor veterans known to their communities, remain as links to the original spirit of Decoration Day, he said.
“Thankfully most communities in this country recognize this, and we are grateful that they have observances and ceremonies on the local level. Those are very important.”
An End to Memorial Day Weekend?
Due to the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968—which moved observances of several holidays to create long weekends—Memorial Day has for decades been held on the last Monday in May.
But some groups, including the American Legion, hope for a return to the original May 30 observance, to truly set the day apart.
“The majority of Americans view Memorial Day as a time for relaxation and leisure recreation rather than as a solemn occasion and a time to reflect and pay tribute to the American servicemen and women who sacrificed their lives in defense of our Nation,” according to an American Legion resolution issued at the group’s 2010 National Convention.
Instead of being part of a long weekend, the resolution asks that Congress “restore the official observance of Memorial Day to May 30 and that all American institutions toll their bells for one minute, beginning at 11:00, on that date in remembrance of those who died defending the Nation.”
Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, a World War II veteran and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, has several times introduced legislation favoring a shift of Memorial Day back to May 30.
And some communities still observe the original date with solemn parades and other services of remembrance.
Since 2000 people across the U.S. have also been asked to observe a national moment of remembrance at 3:00 p.m. local time on the official national holiday. Flags are flown at half staff until noon, to signify a day of mourning.
“I think people are realizing again that Memorial Day is not about picnics, ball games, or going to the beach,” the American Legion’s Raughter said.
“There’s nothing wrong with those things and enjoying the lifestyle that we have,” he added. “But remember that the lifestyle that we have in America—the ability to enjoy a long weekend—was made possible by the nearly one million men and women who have died in service to this country since the American Revolution.”
Perhaps the fact that so many of today’s U.S. troops are in harm’s way, serving in dangerous overseas deployments, has sparked a bit more solemnity, no matter which date is observed, Raughter suggested.
“We seem to remember when we see young men and women come back wounded, amputees, or hear of people we know who made the supreme sacrifice,” he said.
“It’s a shame that it sometimes takes a war to remind us of the heroes that we have, because even during peacetime, the vets are still with us, and they should be remembered at all times, not only when the guns are firing.”
Many thanks to NatGeo for their contributions to this story.