Memorial Day is an American holiday observed each year on the last Monday of May. It is a remembrance holiday in honor of the men and women who served, and died, in the U.S. military. Established in 1868 following the Civil War by General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for the Northern Civil War Veterans, the day was originally known as Decoration Day; the official date was set as May 30.
Though the Civil War claimed more lives than any conflict in U.S. history and thus prompted the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries, there were already different commemorations honoring the war dead around the country. Some records show that the earliest commemoration was organized by enslaved people in Charleston, South Carolina, less than three months after the Confederacy surrendered in 1865. By 1890, most Northern states had made Decoration Day an official state holiday; Southern states continued to honor their war dead on different days until after WWI.
Decoration Day became known as Memorial Day after WWI and gradually evolved to commemorate American military members who died in all wars, ultimately WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and now the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 1968, Congress established the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which then placed Memorial Day on the last Monday in May regardless of the date. The Monday was declared a federal holiday, thus giving federal employees a three-day weekend; the formal change went into effect in 1971.
Whether called Decoration Day or Memorial Day, this holiday was framed as a patriotic occasion from the very beginning. Unlike Veterans’ Day, which remembers all who served with honor in the military, Memorial Day remembers those who died in that service. Consequently, it is inappropriate to wish someone a “Happy Memorial Day.” Instead, people visit local cemeteries and place flags on the graves of the fallen vets, and formal wreath-laying events occur at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and other national burial sites. Though most Americans aren’t aware of it, a National Moment of Remembrance is supposed to be observed, nation-wide, at 3 p.m. local time all across the Country.
Nor are people generally aware of the original history and meaning of Memorial Day. So today, while cities and towns all across America still employ patriotic themes with their flag-waving parades, military concerts, and civic events involving various veterans’ organizations, Memorial Day has also taken on a more seasonal, celebratory character. The establishment of the three-day federal holiday was probably the impetus to that. Suddenly, people had a workday off and a long weekend to enjoy picnics and cook-outs, family gatherings and a day at the beach. With most schools out and public pools and summer camps opening, the three-day weekend came to mark Memorial Day as the “unofficial” beginning of summer.
It also became the unofficial weekend of shopping. At first, with “blue laws” prohibiting commercial activity on the Sabbath in almost all areas of the United States (a holdover from Colonial days), a Monday family shopping day was a real boon to retailers everywhere. Some historians have suggested that this was how the emphasis on mattress sales developed, because families, especially couples, were able to shop together for a significant purchase. From there, promotional sales of other housewares, outdoor grills and patio furniture expanded.
Blue Laws endured in the US until the mid-70’s, but the Monday Holiday Act hastened their demise. Big retail chains, J.C. Penney among the first, began to be open on Sundays during the Christmas holiday season in 1969 and soon other big retail department stores and national chains followed suit. Coming after winter and tax season, May has traditionally marked a rise in consumer spending, so it was inevitable that retailers would want to take advantage of some of that disposable income. Sunday shopping, and then long weekend shopping became a functional and recreational way of life for Americans. Today, consumer spending comprises 70% of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product), a critical component of the national economy.
This year, after the long Covid lockdown, people are understandably ready to break out and retailers are eager to recoup last year’s financial losses. While we were foraging for toilet paper and hand sanitizer at this time last May, everyone is now eager to not only to shop in brick-and-mortar stores, but also to get away and shop on vacation. After a disastrous 2020, the travel industry is seeing a welcome Memorial Day surge this year. According to AAA, about 40 million Americans will travel 50 or more miles away from home over this long weekend, 37 million of whom will literally “hit the rode” and another 2.5 million will take to the air. Memorial Day travel is not entirely back, but it is running about 60 percent above last year.
We are neither shopping nor traveling this weekend — just having a cook-out of hamburgers and hot dogs with our little family. Never did like dealing with crowds and traffic on holidays anyway. For us, Memorial Day was always a time to visit family gravesites and maybe gather for family picnics, so I’m pretty much being true to form. Went down to Victoria this week to the cemetery where my parents are buried. After all the rain and winds and violent weather we’ve had in South Texas this spring, I wanted to clean things up a bit and put a flag on my Father’s grave (he was actually a WWII vet). Didn’t put a flag on Mother’s grave of course, even though she was a hero in her own right.
That’s how I’ve come to see Memorial Day over the years, not to be unduly somber and sad, but to honor and remember all those among my closest friends and loved ones — and there are many — who are no longer here with me, but who fought battles large and small. From them I gained valuable lessons in living, and dying. From them, I learned what heroism is.