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The History of Memorial Day

December 31st, 2012 Seasonal

Memorial Day is a beloved holiday in the United States. Why? Part of it may have to do with the long weekend and the endless number of barbecues held throughout the weekend, but there's also a historical significance. Understanding where our national holidays come from is always a good idea - it helps you develop a sense of pride and ensures you know exactly what you're celebrating. If you've always wondered how Memorial Day came to be, read on!

Three years after the end of the Civil War, the head of an organization of Union veterans called for a new holiday. Decoration Day would take place on May 30, during which people would travel to the graves of soldiers fallen in battle and place flowers on them. SOme believe that May 30 was chosen because it would ensure that flowers would be in bloom all around the United States. The first large-scale observance of Decoration Day took place in Arlington Cemetery, just across the Potomac River from Washington D.C.

Although Decoration Day may have been the first nationally-recognized form of what we now know as Memorial Day, there were a number of local observances which also claimed to be the first. One example took place on April 25, 1866 in Columbus, Mississippi. A group of women visited the graves of Confederate soldiers to place flowers. Nearby was a small cluster of Union soldier graves which had fallen into disrepair because they were the enemy. Unsettled by the lack of care given to them, the women decided to spread flowers across them as well. Today, nearly 25 different locations throughout the North and South claim to be the true birthplace of Memorial Day. Unfortunately, there's no way to determine which is actually the origin of the holiday.

It wasn't until 1966 that President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, New York, to be the official place where Memorial Day started. Although residents claimed to have seen small, organized events taking place in the years prior, it was in Waterloo that the very first community-wide celebration occurred. Stores shut down for the day and flags waved at half-mast. By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day had been signed into various states' legislations as an official holiday and the Army and Navy drafted protocols for how to properly observe it.

It wasn't until after World War I that the scope of the holiday expanded to commemorate United States soldiers who fell in any American war. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday and officially designated to take place on the last Monday of every May (it had been observed on May 30 in prior celebrations).

Even today, you can find a number of ceremonies held throughout the nation. In Lexington, Massachusetts, marching bands make their way to a number of local graveyards where ceremonies are held. Similar observances occur across the country. Of course, there's still plenty of room to get together with friends and enjoy a nice, relaxing barbecue. Many regard Memorial Day as the start of the summer season, even though that official doesn't happen until mid-June. However, it's important to remember why we have such a holiday to begin with - paying proper respect to those who have fallen so that we can enjoy our day off is worth keeping in mind throughout the beautiful afternoon.