Monday, May 30th marks the 154th Memorial Day observation in the United States. Observed on the last Monday of every May, this federal holiday honors military personnel who died while serving in the Armed Services.

Memorial Day weekend has also become known as the unofficial start of summer and a huge retail shopping event. But as in years past, rather than focus on selling opportunities, we wanted to take a closer look at the origins of this important holiday.

The History of Memorial Day

The first Memorial Day observation was held in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. on May 30, 1868. It was originally called Decoration Day and was meant to honor Union and Confederate soldiers who died during the Civil War. Later, the holiday was expanded to include fallen soldiers from all US wars.

For over a century, Memorial Day was observed on May 30th. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971 shifted the observance to the last Monday in May.

Union Army General John Alexander Logan issued a special order in 1868 to celebrate the fallen. He stated it was “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, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land.”

New York was the first state to designate Memorial Day a legal holiday in 1873. Most northern states had followed suit by the 1890s, with the southern states adopting it after World War I.

How We Observe and Celebrate

Putting the more recent consumerism opportunities aside, Memorial Day at its core is meant to be a day of gratitude, introspection, mourning, and yes, even celebration. However, it’s a bit misleading to say that the deaths of millions of soldiers is something to be “celebrated”. Rather, we attend parades and hold gatherings to celebrate the lives of the fallen and the service they gave to our country. We remember loved ones, visit the graves of veterans, and honor all who have served and continue to serve in the military. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Memorial Day events looked very different than in years past, with far fewer large, in-person gatherings of any kind. Now, two years later, most of the country will be once again attending in-person gatherings and ceremonial events. People can observe the holiday in many different ways, from small, intimate family gatherings to large-scale community events taking place all around the country.

However we choose to honor and celebrate the soldiers who gave their lives in service to our country, we hope that everyone this year has a safe Memorial Day weekend. For more information on your community’s Memorial Day events and updated social distancing guidelines, check your local government websites.