Memorial Day, observed on the last Monday in May, is the day that our country honors the men and women who have died while serving in the military.
Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971. Decoration Day was meant as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of those who died in was with flowers. Americans embraced the notion of Decoration Day immediately. The first year, more than 27 states held a ceremony, with more than 5,000 people in attendance at a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. That crowd placed small American flags on each grave, a tradition that still happens today.
On May 5, 1866, there was a ceremony held to honor local veterans who fought in the Civil War. Businesses closed, and residents flew flags at half-staff. Major General John A. Logan declared the day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.
In 1868, General Logan’s for his posts to decorate grave “with the choicest flowers of springtime” urged, “we should guard their graves with sacred vigilance…let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravage of time, testify to the presence of to the coming of generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic”.
By 1890, every former state of the union had adopted it as an official holiday.
For more than 50 years, the holiday was used to commemorate those only killed in the Civil War, not in any other conflict. It wasn’t’ until America’s entry into WWI that it expanded to include those killed in all wars.
In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, NY the birthplace of Memorial Day.
Formal rituals that are still in use today include:
- The American flag hung at half-staff until noon on Memorial Day then raised to the top
- In 2000, Congress passed legislation that all Americans are encouraged to pause for a National Moment of Remembrance at 3 pm local time.