On May 5, 1868, a dapper old soldier named Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared May 30 Decoration Day. “The 30th day 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 wrote. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the date was chosen because flowers were typically in bloom.
By the late 1800s, all northern states recognized Decoration Day, adorning the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers. After World War I, Decoration Day, which would later become Memorial Day, honored all U.S. military dead. For decades, May 30 was a solemn day of remembrance. It had nothing to do with food, drink, or a Monday off work.
In 1971, Congress made Memorial Day an official national holiday. Congress also passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, moving a handful of holidays, including Memorial Day, to the Monday closest to its original date. The change was meant to create a long weekend and to give many workers a day off. Today, Memorial Day is celebrated on the last Monday in May.
To some veterans, notably the late Daniel Inouye, a Hawaii Senator, World War II veteran, and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, the creation of the three-day weekend marked the end of what Memorial Day was supposed to be about. “In our effort to accommodate many Americans by making the last Monday in May Memorial Day, we have lost sight of the significance of this day to our nation,” Inouye once wrote. “Instead of using Memorial Day as a time to honor and reflect on the sacrifices made by Americans in combat, many Americans use the day as a celebration of the beginning of summer.”
In 1989, Inouye sponsored a Senate bill to restore Memorial Day to May 30. He reintroduced the measure regularly for as long as he lived.
But once a three-day weekend has taken hold in America, it’s hard for people to let it go. According to a poll by Rasmussen Reports, 64 percent of Americans celebrate Memorial Day as the unofficial start of summer. And where there’s celebration, there’s food. The annual Weber GrillWatch survey regularly ranks Memorial Day, 4th of July, and Labor Day as the three most popular grilling days of the year.
Today, Memorial Day is a curious blend of food, celebration, honor, and solemnity. If you want to celebrate the holiday with both food and remembrance, there are certainly ways to do both. Americans are asked to fly flags at half staff until noon, then observe a National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. After that, enjoy time with food, family, and friends. And maybe while you’re at it, give a toast to John A. Logan.