Here are four facts about Memorial Day, a holiday that encompasses — sometimes uneasily — two observances in one day: a tribute to the men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country, and the unofficial start to summer.
1. Memorial Day had many beginnings. The first formal, community observance of Memorial Day is credited to the town of Waterloo, NY, on May 5, 1866. But there were several informal observances before then, including one discovered by happenstance in a Harvard University archive in the late 1990s: a veteran’s note mentioning a newspaper article in the New York Tribune that described an event organized by emancipated enslaved persons in Charleston, SC, on May 1, 1865, just weeks after the Confederacy surrendered.
2. The first national celebration came in 1868. John A. Logan, commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a general order calling for May 30 to be used “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.” This is one of the reasons the holiday was sometimes called Decoration Day. The first national event was held at Arlington National Cemetery.
3. It became a federal holiday in 1971. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act passed in 1968 and went into effect in 1971. The act made Memorial and Columbus days federal holidays and codified Monday holidays for the two observances, as well as for Washington’s Birthday. This move was meant to give workers three-day weekends throughout the year. Memorial Day is now celebrated on the last Monday of May.
4. Congress refocuses on remembrance. As the holiday became associated with three-day weekends, barbecues and pool openings, Congress moved to create a National Moment of Remembrance. This 2000 resolution asks Americans to pause at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day for a minute of silence in honor of the soldiers who died for their country. Nationwide, Taps Across America buglers play “Taps,” Amtrak blows its train whistles and Major League Baseball halts their games.