The term Memorial Day conjures up images of beaches, lemonade, warm breezes—all harbingers of the coming summer season. But there is so much more to the three day commemoration than a convenient time to schedule a mini-vacation.
Originally called Decoration Day, the holiday’s roots are planted in a grisly fact. After the cessation of the Civil War, the United States government was faced with the grim task of burying more soldiers than had ever been slain in a conflict before. So the creation of the first national cemeteries was implemented, as was the need to pay homage to the fallen soldiers.
By the late 1860s, various American towns began to hold annual springtime tributes at the cemeteries, decorating the grave sites with flowers and reciting prayers. A century later the federal government declared Waterloo, New York to be the original source of Memorial Day as it had been holding the tribute day as an annual, community-wide event with businesses closing and residents decorating the soldiers’ graves since 1866.
Decoration Day morphed into the more familiar title for modern ears as Memorial Day. Initially, it was a day to commemorate those who had died in the Civil War. But when the United States found itself enmeshed in yet another conflict with the outbreak of World War I, the need to honor all soldiers killed in wartime became evident.
Fast forward to 1967 when federal law declared May 30 to be the sanctioned appointment for Memorial Day. In 1971, Congress passed the National Holiday Act, making it an official federal day of honoring men and women who have been killed while in service of the U.S. military and changed the day to the last Monday in May. The three day Memorial Day observance has seen its fair share of detractors who feel tacking it onto the weekend has devalued its importance. Some cite the move as the root cause of a casual attitude toward the solemn event on the part of Americans. But within a few years, Congress’s date change was embraced by all 50 states. And the weekend continues to be seen as the forerunner of the highly anticipated summer season.