Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in service of the United States of America. It descends from a Southern tradition where families would travel to the cemeteries where their ancestors were interred to place flowers on their graves. Often large groups of extended families would make the trip, religious ceremonies would take place and food would be served. Decoration Day used to reflect the cycles of farm life, taking place in late summer when farm work was lightest or in autumn after the seasonal harvest.
Memorial Day was borne out of the Civil War and a desire to honor our dead. It was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, who chose May 30 as the date for Decoration Day because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle.
On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.
The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890, it was recognized by all of the northern states. The South chose to honor their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war).
It is now observed in almost every state on the last Monday in May with Congressional passage of the National Holiday Act of 1971. This helped ensure a three day weekend for Federal holidays, though several southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: January 19th in Texas; April 26th in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10th in South Carolina; and June 3rd (Jefferson Davis’ birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee.
Memorial Day is not – as Veterans Day is – a blanket remembrance of those who have served in the nation’s armed forces. It is specifically designated to honor those who have died while serving the country.
To help re-educate and remind Americans of the true meaning of Memorial Day, the “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution was passed in December 2000. It asks that at 3 p.m. local time all Americans “voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of Remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to Taps.”
Wishing you and your families well on this important holiday weekend.