Memorial Day means a lot of things to a lot of different people.
Some use the three-day weekend as an excuse to go on a little trip somewhere. Others may stay home to have a barbecue or check out one of this summer's blockbusters in movie theaters. Still, others might take advantage of one of the many sales offered during the weekend.
However, Memorial Day was not created so you could frolic on the beach, stuff your face with all-you-can-eat ribs or get your summer wardrobe all set. There's a much more important reason why Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the United States.
Memorial Day was originally created as a day of remembrance for those that were killed while fighting in the Civil War. Today, however, the holiday is used as a day to honor all Americans that have died while serving our country.
Of course, what holiday hasn't lost its original meaning these days? Thanks, commercialization.
But that just means we all have to work a little bit harder to understand the reasoning behind why you probably get a day off from work on Monday, May 25. However, it can be done, and the history of Memorial Day is laid out before you below.
All of this isn't to say you can't still have fun on Memorial Day. You can. That's one thing the men and women that have served our nation fought for. However, they also deserve to be remembered as well.
1. It Wasn't Always Called Memorial Day
When Memorial Day was originally created, it was actually called Decoration Day. On May 5, 1868, three years after the Civil War ended, Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, the head of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans, called for the creation of Decoration Day as a nationwide decorating of the graves of those who died in the war with flowers. During the first Decoration Day on May 30 of that year, Gen. James Garfield spoke at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 observers decorated more than 20,000 Union and Confederate graves.
2. There Might Have Been Many First Memorial Days
As is the case with many holidays, there is some controversy over when the first Memorial Day took place. Though Logan's Decoration Day declaration is widely accepted as the official start of the tradition, there were several smaller, local observances like it across the country after the Civil War. Yale University historian David Blight told TIME in 2009 that the first Memorial Day was held in April 1865 when a group of former slaves created a proper burial site for more than 250 Union soldiers at a Charleston, S.C. horse track. About 10,000 people gathered at Planters' Race Course on May 1 of that year to pay tribute to the fallen soldiers. The following year, a group of women in Columbus, Miss. decorated the graves of Confederate soldiers that died in battle at Shiloh. About 25 places across the U.S. have claimed to be connected to the origins of Memorial Day, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
3. This Is The Official Birthplace Of Memorial Day
Even though there is a dispute over where Memorial Day actually originated, President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress declared Waterloo, N.Y. the official birthplace of Memorial Day, and no one can take that away from the city in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. Waterloo earned this distinction because a local pharmacist named Henry C. Welles came up with the idea to place flowers on the graves of those who fought in the Civil War in the summer of 1865. Gen. John B. Murray eventually helped Welles organize the memorial, which took place on May 5, 1866. The celebration was held every year after that.
4. It Took A Long Time To Make It A Federal Holiday
Though Memorial Day began as a way to honor those who died while serving in the Civil War, once the U.S. became embroiled in World War I and subsequent wars, the holiday expanded to honor the fallen in any conflict, according to TIME. The name of the holiday was also changed to Memorial Day around the time of World War I. Memorial Day celebrations had always taken place on May 30, the date of the first one organized by Logan in 1868. However, Congress signed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968, which mandated that Memorial Day would be one of four holidays observed on a Monday (the other three are George Washington's birthday, Labor Day and Columbus Day). Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday to be observed on the last Monday of May in 1971.
5. Some States Have Confederate Observances
During Memorial Day's early years, it was closely linked to the Union, and for that reason, many southern states didn't celebrate the holiday, according to TIME. That all changed once Memorial Day expanded to honor those that died while fighting in any American war. However, some southern states, such as Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, have a separate Memorial Day celebration just to honor Confederate soldiers today, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
6. This Is How We Celebrate Memorial Day Today
Just like in 1868, a national Memorial Day observance continues to be held at Arlington National Cemetery annually. During this ceremony, the president speaks and lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as the Old Guard, also places little American flags at the gravesites of service members buried at Arlington National Cemetery on the Thursday before Memorial Day every year. All Americans are also supposed to pause for a minute of silence at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day to pay tribute to the men and women who died while serving the nation. Congress instituted this practice in 2000 with the passage of The National Moment of Remembrance Act, so this is one Memorial Day activity that is actually the law.