Saturday, May 21, 2016
MEMORIAL DAY: A Holiday With A Dual Distinction
The last Monday in May, this year falling on May 30th, is Memorial Day in the United States—a holiday honoring the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated in the years following the Civil War but didn't become an official federal holiday until 1971.
In addition to being a day observed by many Americans visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings, and participating in patriotic parades, it's also considered the unofficial start of the summer season and vacation time.
The Civil War claimed more lives than any conflict in U.S. history. This required the establishment of the country's first national cemeteries. In the late 1860s, Americans in various small towns and large cities held springtime tributes to fallen soldiers by decorating their graves with flowers. On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan proclaimed May 30th as Decoration Day, the date chosen because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle.
On the first Decoration Day General Logan made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery where 5,000 participants decorated the graves of 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.
Decoration Day originally honored only those lost while fighting in the Civil War. But by the time the U.S. became involved in World War I, the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars.
The name Decoration Day gradually changed over to Memorial Day during the ensuing years, but continued to be observed on May 30th. In 1968, one hundred years after General Logan made his Decoration Day proclamation, 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. This law also declared Memorial Day to be a federal holiday. The change went into effect in 1971.
In addition to nationwide parades and the decorating of graves and monuments, Memorial Day has come to hold a second distinction. It is also a time of many family gatherings which include backyard BBQs and picnics. With an official date of the last Monday in May, the holiday is considered the unofficial start of summer and the beginning of the vacation travel season in the Northern Hemisphere with the Labor Day holiday on the first Monday of September signaling the unofficial end of the summer season.