5 facts everyone should know about Memorial Day

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Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer for many, who spend the three-day weekend celebrating the national holiday with family and friends at barbecues, parades and other festive celebrations. Many turn out for their town parade, which ends either in a local cemetery or at a veterans' memorial, where speeches honoring the fallen are read. This year's ceremonies will look much different thanks to COVID-19, with many either canceled, being held virtually, or transformed into wave parades. No matter how your town is celebrating on Monday, here are a few facts everyone should know about the national holiday.

Originally called Decoration Day

In 1868, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic Gen. John A. Logan designated May 30 as Decoration Day, a day to memorialize those who had died fighting the Civil War. According to the Library of Congress, "the first national celebration of the holiday took place May 30, 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery, where both Confederate and Union soldiers were buried." After the ceremonies, some 5,000 volunteers decorated the graves of the 20,000 Confederate and Union soldiers buried there.

Logan chose May 30 as the date because it was not associated with an anniversary of a Civil War battle.

Created to honor those who died in battle

Although most Memorial Day celebrations today honor all service members, many speakers, especially those serving in the U.S. armed forces, will remind you that it's a day to honor those who died in battle. (We celebrate all veterans, who served in wartime or peacetime, on Veterans Day each Nov. 11. Armed Forces Day, held on the third Saturday of May, is not a federal holiday. However, the observance, declared by President Harry S. Truman, honors all those currently serving in the U.S. military.)

When Logan designated May 30 as Decoration Day, it was to pay tribute to Union and Confederate soldiers who had died in battle during the Civil War. By the turn of the century, the day had expanded to those who had died in other American wars, including the American Revolution and the War of 1812. It now includes servicemen and servicewomen who have died in every American war and conflict.

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Became a federal holiday in 1971

Logan may have designated May 30 as Decoration Day, but he didn't have the authority to make it a national holiday. By 1900, every state had adopted the holiday, now known as Memorial Day, but it was still far from being recognized as an official federal holiday. In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, moving the Memorial Day from the affixed date of May 30 to the last Monday in May, thus creating a three-day weekend for federal employees. However, Memorial Day was not made an official federal holiday by Congress until 1971.

There's a National Moment of Remembrance on Memorial Day

The first National Moment of Remembrance was held at 3 p.m., May 29, 2000 — Memorial Day — in an attempt to put the "memorial" back in Memorial Day. It was later signed into law by Congress and President Bill Clinton in December 2000. The moment — a single minute of silence — is to honor those who have died in military service. The time of 3 p.m. was chosen because that is it supposed to be the hour when the greatest majority of citizens are enjoying the holiday.

According to the Clinton White House archives, the idea of the moment "was born when children touring Lafayette Park in Washington D.C. were asked what Memorial Day meant and they responded, 'That's the day the pools open.'"

Waterloo, N.Y., declared official 'birthplace' of holiday

In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., as the "birthplace" of Memorial Day. The decision, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, was made to declare the town the birthplace because there "a ceremony on May 5, 1866, honored local veterans who had fought in the Civil War. Businesses closed and residents flew flags at half-staff." And, according to History.com, unlike other towns, Waterloo's community-wide event, which included decorating the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags, became an annual event.

While Waterloo has the official title of being the birthplace of Memorial Day, it should be noted at least 25 other towns claim to be the birthplace of the national observance. Among those places are Macon and Columbus, Ga., Richmond, Va., and Boalsburg, Pa., which claims its ceremony began two years earlier. Also laying claim to the namesake is Carbondale, Ill., Logan's wartime home, which claims its ceremony took place on April 29, 1866.


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