In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, celebrating holidays in 2020 looks different compared to celebrating other times in recent memory. With Memorial Day on May 25, people across the U.S. are finding new ways to celebrate the accomplishments of their friends and loved ones in the Armed Forces who have passed away.
While Memorial Day has become the unofficial sign of the beginning of summer in the United States, the holiday itself celebrates more than the average person would think. The holiday’s history spans over a century, dating back to the 1860s. It has also, over time, changed the criteria of the soldiers who have been honored, the locations of the first observance, and the date of the holiday itself.
Memorial Day was first observed as “Decoration Day” on May 30, 1868, in Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery, three years after the end of the Civil War, though it was initially established on May 5 by the Grand Army of the Republic. John A. Logan, a general in the Union Army, declared a date change so that flowers would be in bloom to decorate the gravesites. The point of Decoration Day was to remember the lives of both the Union and Confederate soldiers lost in the Civil War; as a result, during the first Decoration Day ceremony — attended by the likes of officials like Ulysses S. Grant — flowers were left at the graves of the dead, hymns were sung, and prayers were said.
Various states have claimed that they were the first to observe a version of Decoration Day prior to the official 1868 ceremony, with 1866 being the date of such a ceremony cemented in stone in an Illinois cemetery. In early days, confederate soldiers were the ones who received flowers on their graves in the Southern states. But, the day still became an emblem of remembering what soldiers did for the country — a tradition that carried on over centuries and into its new iteration,
Decoration Day only observed those who died in the Civil War until after World War I, when it was expanded to include any and all soldiers who died fighting in American wars. In 1971, Congress made a national holiday called Memorial Day and sought to officially celebrate this occasion on the last Monday in May. Because of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, created that same year, the official date of Memorial Day no longer mattered; as long as it was the last Monday in May, those who served and died were honored.
The battle over where the first Memorial Day was also put to rest five years prior in 1966; President Lyndon Johnson concluded that the official birthplace of Memorial Day was in Waterloo, New York, though certain states stick to their guns on when and where the first observance of the holiday took place.
Now, Memorial Day is often a time where families and friends are seen barbecuing outdoors or celebrating the initiative of the Summer season. But it remains a day to honor soldiers and armed forces as much as ever before.