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How Did Memorial Day Become a Holiday?

Young boy salutes flags of Memorial Day display in a small townOther images:
By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

Memorial Day has been celebrated for more than 100 years now, recognizing the losses felt during our nation's wars.

But how exactly did Memorial Day become an official federal holiday?

Decoration Day and Beginnings

On May 30, 1868, Memorial Day was observed by former Civil War officers and legislators at Arlington National Cemetery as a way to reflect on the losses incurred by the war. According to PBS, future President James A. Garfield (then an Ohio Congressman) honored the men buried there that day, announcing their sacrifices had "made immortal their patriotism and their virtue."

Twenty-five days prior, Gen. John A. Logan had declared that "Declaration Day" be observed on May 30, as a time for Americans to decorate the graves of war veterans with flowers. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs notes that local tributes to the Civil War dead were recorded as early as April 25, 1866, in Columbus, Mississippi, although various cities claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day.

This historical argument was officially "settled" by President Lyndon B. Johnson in May 1966, when he declared Waterloo, New York, to be the birthplace of Memorial Day.

Federal Recognition of Memorial Day

President Johnson had proclaimed Monday, May 30, 1966, to be Memorial Day as part of a joint resolution of Congress, calling for an annual presidential proclamation of Memorial Day. This is still the protocol for many federal holidays, such as Armed Forces Day.

However, it wasn't until 1971 that Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, establishing that Memorial Day would be celebrated on the last Monday of May. The law also calls for observing Memorial Day as a time to pray for peace, regardless of religious faith.

Memorial Day is still celebrated at Arlington National Cemetery each year, with the President or Vice President laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The VA also acknowledges that several Southern states hold their own Confederate Memorial Days, mostly between April and June.

This Memorial Day, we join all Americans in hoping for permanent peace and remembering those who died in our nation's wars.

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