How the U.S. came to celebrate Memorial Day
We are the country that assigned a holiday to a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition where a rodent predicts weather and dedicated another to playing pranks on foolish friends. But “needing a federal holiday to start the summer” isn’t enough reason to reserve the fourth Monday in May for the purpose. So why does the U.S. celebrate Memorial Day? The history of the holiday is pretty emotional. And knowing it might help keep you both from mixing it up with Labor Day or thinking it’s the day to thank service members for their service. (Though honestly, those sentiments are welcome any time.) Here is how the day came about, followed by the most appropriate ways to observe it:
When Memorial Day was still called Decoration Day
The day of national awareness and reverence for the nation’s war dead, Memorial Day came from a post-Civil War celebration known as Decoration Day. It was established by the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veteran’s group, as a time to decorate graves of fallen soldiers with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan selected the official day, May 30, presumably because there would be spring flowers blooming and handy for the cause. (An alternate explanation was that May 30 had zero other battle anniversaries associated with it, which was unusual.) There was a ceremony that drew about 5,000 at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia, presided over by Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant and other military dignitaries from the Union army. The backdrop, the Arlington home and former residence of General Robert E. Lee, had to be unsettling to those gathered, draped as it was with mourning black.
The Union graves were not the only ones strewn with flowers, though. Keep in mind that most of the Civil War dead from both sides were buried in the South and particularly Virginia, the site of many hard-fought battles. The children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home at that first event placed blooms, said prayers, and sang hymns for all the war dead at Arlington.
Memorial Day in ’71
It took all the way until the first Baby Boomers were in their teens and twenties for Memorial Day to get an official spot on the calendar (and a few years later, the corresponding federal holiday in its name.) The commemoration had already been expanded to honor anyone who had died in American wars after World War I. In 1968, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act made it official: Memorial Day was now the last Monday in May, whether or not that was May 30. Then in 1971, an act of Congress settled on the three-day weekend federal holiday and an era of pool parties and possibly Indy 500-watching ensued.
In a follow-up to the existing Memorial Day tradition, “A National Moment of Remembrance” Congressional act was signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton in 2000. The idea: “To reclaim Memorial Day as the noble event it was intended to be, to honor those who died in service to our nation,” according to the Clinton White House. That’s when the Memorial Day tradition of everyone pausing at 3 p.m. for one minute got going. Like New Year’s, the exact time depends on what time zone of the U.S. you live in.
The whole idea began three years earlier, though, when some kids touring in D.C. only knew that Memorial Day meant the time when pools open each summer. In 1997, a national humanitarian organization called No Greater Love made sure “Taps” was played at 3 p.m. in various locations across America. The memorial happened again for the next two years before being made official as a national observation in 2000. The minute of silence is a great alternative for anyone who can’t make it to a gravesite for cleaning or placing flowers. The important thing is, remember.