Memorial Day, as the name implies, was established to create a day of remembrance to honor soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice in the U.S. Civil War. Our culture today, however, associates the holiday with the start of summer activities, like barbecues and going to the beach. How did this once somber holiday become the signal of summer?
After the Civil War ended in the spring of 1865, Americans were struggling with the enormous loss of 620,000 people to the conflict. Days of remembrance began to spring up all around the country, but Waterloo, New York is officially recognized as the birthplace of Memorial Day. Waterloo began having an annual and organized remembrance day as of May 1866, when businesses closed and the graves of the military were decorated with flags and flowers.
Three years after the end of the Civil War, Major General John Logan, head of an organization of Union veterans called the Grand Army of the Republic, called for a national celebration to honor fallen Civil War soldiers. Future president James Garfield presided over the first “Decoration Day” as it was first called, on May 30, 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery. The date was chosen, supposedly, because flowers would then be in bloom. Future celebrations were held at former Civil War battle sites, like Antietam and Gettysburg.
Though the observances continued, at the end of the 19th century, memories of the Civil War began to wane, and with the day falling on the last day of May, was beginning to be celebrated as a summer holiday. At the time, workers had few days off, and it soon became common practice to visit cemeteries in the morning and engage in more relaxing activities in the afternoon. By the mid 1880s, newspaper editorials decried that the holiday had become “desecrated” by people playing sports on Decoration Day, but that didn’t have much effect on the general populace. By the time the first Indianapolis 500 race was held on May 30, 1911, barely an eye was batted.
However, the world wars in the first half of the 20th century brought Decoration Day back into the public consciousness. In fact, the day originally only honored soldiers who had been killed in the Civil War, but as America entered into conflict after conflict in the 20th century, the day evolved to honor all of our fallen dead.
In order to create three-day weekends, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968, which established the day as an official federal holiday called “Memorial Day” to be celebrated on the last Monday in May. With that three-day holiday in effect and fewer and fewer people having personal connections to the military, the drumbeat towards Memorial Day becoming the start of the summer season only continued onward.
Today, many towns and cities across the country do still hold solemn Memorial Day observances and parades to honor fallen military members. And while this year, the summer celebrations may be distant and less social, America may need the merriment we now associate with Memorial Day more than ever.