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How Memorial Day Started -- and Why It's Now About BBQ

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Memorial Day at the San Francisco National Cemetery. Photo: Daniel Parks/ Flickr
Memorial Day at the San Francisco National Cemetery. Photo: Daniel Parks/ Flickr

Lest ye forget, as you prepare your grills and marinate your meats for the weekend, Memorial Day was not always the summer food holiday it has become.

As opposed to Veterans Day, which honors living veterans, Memorial Day is a time to remember those who have died while in military service. The holiday originally started as Decoration Day, where the graves of soldiers were decorated with flowers and flags. Though President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, NY the official birthplace of Memorial Day the wake of the Civil War, dozens of towns continue to claim that they, in fact, were the originators of the holiday.

It's ancestry is so hard to trace -- particularly through to some of our current iterations -- because the custom of decorating tombstones precedes organized holidays. What is certain is that on May 5, 1868 national commander General John Logan declared May 30 Decoration Day, "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."

At the first ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, 5,000 people participated in decorating the graves of fallen soldiers from the Civil War. By the late 1800s, all the northern states recognized Decoration Day. It wasn't until after World War I, when the holiday changed from recognizing Civil War soldiers to honoring all dead military, that the whole of the country participated on May 30 every year.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, it is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be blooming across the country and would make wreaths with which to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. And, so, for decades Memorial Day on May 30 was simply a day of memorial and remembrance.


But, in 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday and passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved a handful of holidays -- including the newly nationally-christened Memorial Day -- to the nearest Monday. Today, Memorial Day is celebrated on the last Monday in May.

The change was meant to give federal workers the day off and create a long weekend, presumably to use the extra time in acts of memorial. However, many view the creation of the three-day weekend as the end of what Memorial Day was supposed to be about and the beginning of its decline into pits of barbecue.

In a resolution issued by the American Legion in 2010, the group bemoaned the fact that many people now use the holiday as a time to celebrate instead of commemorate. The resolution reads: "The majority of Americans view Memorial Day as a time for relaxation and leisure recreation rather than as a solemn occasion and a time to reflect and pay tribute to the American servicemen and women who sacrificed their lives in defense of our nation."

The resolution went on to call for the holiday to return to its original date of May 30 and for all American institutions to toll their bells for one minute at 11 a.m. Before he died, Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, a World War II veteran and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, also annually introduced legislation calling for a shift of Memorial Day back to May 30. But, the shift in the holiday's date and focus had already taken hold of the nation.

Because of the three-day weekend, the (typically) nice weather, and the end of the school year fast approaching for kids, many families prefer to take advantage of the holiday to ring in the summer. Along with 4th of July and Labor Day (which marks the unofficial end of summer), Memorial Day is one of the three most popular days for grilling out. According to a poll by Rasmussen Reports, 64% of American adults consider Memorial Day the unofficial start of summer, which explains why so many are eager to celebrate the sun and the long weekend with grilling and swimsuits. If we build it, summer will come -- despite the fact that the actual official start of summer is June 21.

In an effort, though, to remember the day's remembrances, people are asked to observe a national moment of remembrance at 3 p.m. and fly flags at half staff until noon. Then, you can get to eating.

If you are planning to kick-off the summer, after remembering those who have died in battle, check out the Serious Eats Memorial Day guide to grilling all things -- it includes chicken, hamburgers, veggies, pork, seafood, and cocktails.

Or, just relax with your family and appreciate everything and everyone that got you to this point.

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