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Happy Memorial Day Weekend – A brief history of why we have Memorial Day

By: Jasna Aleksandrova

Arlington National Cemetery

Many Americans think of it as the unofficial start of summer, but of course, Memorial Day has a deeper meaning. Originally called the Decoration Day, it is the time when we remember those who have died in service to our nation, the day we honor and remember our fallen heroes.

A lot of cities and towns claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, but Waterloo N.Y. was officially declared as the birthplace by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966. However, according to some historians, the first Memorial Day was in April 1865, when a group of former slaves in Charleston, S.C., dug up a soldiers’ mass grave and placed the bodies in individual graves. They built a fence around the newly formed cemetery and placed a sign saying “Martyrs of the Race Course.” On May 1, 1865, Charleston residents marched around the graves carrying armfuls of roses, while preachers recited and a children’s choir was singing. 

On the 5th of May 1868, three years after the Civil War ended, Decoration Day was officially proclaimed by General John Logan and was first observed on May 30, 1868, by placing flowers on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. Many believe that 30th of May was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country at that particular time.

New York was the first state to officially recognize the holiday in 1873, followed by all the northern states. The South did not acknowledge the day and honored their fallen soldiers on separate days. It wasn’t until after World War I that the South accepted the holiday after it was expanded beyond honoring fallen Civil War soldiers to recognizing Americans who died fighting in all wars.

Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30th throughout the nation by the end of the 19th century. In 1971, Congress moved Memorial Day from May 30th to the last Monday in May. As is the case for many traditions, the celebration of Memorial Day has changed over the years. Today the three-day weekend promotes relaxation instead of stressing the holiday’s true meaning.

In order for the heroes never to be forgotten, in December 2000, Congress passed The National Moment of Remembrance Act. This was to encourage people to give something back to their country that provides them freedom and opportunities, by encouraging and coordinating commemorations of Memorial Day.

The tradition of celebrating Memorial Day remains strong at Arlington National Cemetery. On the Thursday before Memorial Day, soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division place American flags at the resting places of more than 320,000 servicemen and servicewomen. They patrol around the clock during the weekend. At 3 p.m. local time, all Americans voluntarily and informally observe a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence.

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