Memorial Day for my family has always been about camping and spending time as a family. And it was about remembering family that was no longer with us. We’d go to grandma’s house – the family farm – and pull all the fake flowers that she collected over the years. We would arrange the flowers and go with her to place them on the graves of our family. Then, we’d come back to the farm and have a cookout or even a family softball game. Our traditions are not typical, but not far from how Memorial Day has evolved.
Memorial Day Origins
Decoration Day was the name of the original day of remembrance for those who died in the Civil War. On May 5, 1862, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month.
“The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land,” he proclaimed.
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.
Memorial events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 states in 1868, and 336 in 1869. The northern states quickly adopted the holiday. Michigan was the first to make “Decoration Day” an official state holiday in 1871 and by 1890, every northern state had followed suit.
20th Century Happenings
While over two dozen cities and towns claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, in May 1966 President Lyndon Johnson officially declared Waterloo N.Y. as the birthplace of Memorial Day. And in 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees; the change went into effect in 1971.
The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday. This helped ensure a three day weekend for Federal holidays. Several southern states have an additional 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.
Today, Memorial Day is commemorated by flying of the American flag at half staff, a national “moment of remembrance,” (it is at 3PM on Memorial Day – a moment of silence is held) and a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. Local communities often celebrate by having picnics, parades, barbecues, and commemorative ceremonies held in local memorial or town parks.