1. Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day
It is not clear where the traditions of Memorial Day began, but not long after the Civil War ended, several cities began holding tributes in the spring for the soldiers who fell during the war. People would honor the fallen by decorating their graves and praying.
General John A. Logan called for a nationally recognized day of remembrance to honor the soldiers who gave their lives for their country on May 5, 1862. He proclaimed May 30, 1868 to be the first Decoration Day:
“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,”
Logan chose May 30 because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle. By 1890, every state in the North had adopted Decoration Day as an official state holiday.
Many Southern states did not share a day to remember and honor their dead until after World War I when the purpose of Decoration Day was expanded to honor fallen U.S. troops from all wars. Though the name Memorial Day was first used in the early 1880s, the name didn’t catch on until after World War II.
2. The Birthplace of Memorial Day
As mentioned above, there is no evidence to pinpoint the exact place of origin for Memorial Day. Several towns claim to be the originator of the holiday, but it is near impossible to validate any of these claims.
Still, in 1966, Congress declared Waterloo, N.Y. to be the official birthplace of Memorial Day. The first recorded observance of the holiday in Waterloo happened a century earlier on May 5, 1866.
3. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act
In 1968, Congress passed a bill called the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act.” For many decades, Memorial Day was celebrated on May 30. However, under this law, Memorial Day was not only declared an official federal holiday, it was changed to fall on the last Monday of May so federal workers could have a three-day weekend. The change went into effect in 1971.
4. The National Moment of Remembrance
In December 2000, Congress passed a law that “requires” Americans to pause at 3 PM on Memorial Day and take a moment of silence to honor the fallen. The time was designated as the National Moment of Remembrance and serves as an act of national unity in remembering all of the men and women who have given their lives in service of the United States.
The time 3 PM was chosen because that is when most Americans are enjoying their freedoms during the holiday.
A Gallup poll released on March 26, 2000 revealed that, for the most part, a solid majority of Americans got the general concept of what Memorial Day was about, but only 28 percent knew, with confidence, the exact meaning of the holiday. What likely caught lawmakers’ attention, however, was how Americans spend their time on Memorial Day.
The traditional celebration of Memorial Day includes going to veteran cemeteries and attending the local Memorial Day parade. However, that’s now how most Americans celebrate the holiday, according to surveys. In fact, most people just spend the day at home.
As his presidency came to an end, President Clinton signed into the law the National Moment of Remembrance so that all Americans were encouraged to take a moment to remember what Memorial Day is truly about.
5. Memorial Day is considered the unofficial first day of summer
Light up the barbecues and take a moment to enjoy the beautiful weather because summer has begun! Well, unofficially it has. Many people like to celebrate Memorial Day weekend as the first long weekend of the summer season by grilling out, going camping, taking a trip to the local lake or pool, and even launching some fireworks.
Technically, the first day of summer is marked by the June Solstice, which falls on June 20 or 21 every year. It is the longest day of the year. However, a three-day weekend at the end of May presents the perfect opportunity to welcome the season.