Today, Memorial Day is synonymous with barbecues, picnics—but the holiday's roots trace back far further than you might have realized. Below, a few facts about the history of Memorial Day, and how it's evolved throughout its 150-odd years.
1. MULTIPLE CITIES CLAIM TO BE THE BIRTHPLACE OF MEMORIAL DAY.
According to the Library of Congress, President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, New York, to be the "Birthplace of Memorial Day," referencing a celebration the town had in 1866. However, other places are known to have celebrated the holiday earlier, and exactly where the first celebration took place remains in dispute.
2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY CALLED DECORATION DAY.
The holiday was celebrated by “decorating” the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers, flags, and more, hence the name “Decoration Day.” Over time, it became known as Memorial Day.
3. UNION GENERAL JOHN A. LOGAN FOUNDED THE HOLIDAY.
Although people were already decorating graves of fallen Civil War soldiers in an unofficial way, General Logan codified the holiday. “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated 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 churchyard in the land,” he famously said.
4. MEMORIAL DAY WASN’T CELEBRATED ON THE “LAST MONDAY IN MAY” UNTIL RELATIVELY RECENTLY.
When General Logan officially launched the holiday, he called for it to be observed on May 30. After the Uniform Monday Holiday Act took effect in 1971, however, it was moved to the final Monday in May.
5. LOGAN MAY HAVE CHOSEN MAY 30 AN INTERESTING REASON.
The date was selected because it wasn’t the anniversary of any battle in particular—well, according to legend, that is.
6. IT’S CUSTOMARY FOR THE U.S. PRESIDENT OR VICE PRESIDENT TO GIVE A SPEECH.
And traditionally, that speech is delivered at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Ahead of Memorial Day weekend, the 3rd U.S. Infantry also place American flags in front of Arlington’s over 260,000 graves and niches
7. ORIGINALLY, ONLY SOLDIERS WHO HAD DIED IN THE CIVIL WAR WERE HONORED.
After WWI, though, the holiday began to encompass members of the American armed forces who had fallen in any conflict.