From the Civil War to today’s mattress sales, Memorial Day is full of contradictions

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Memorial Day is supposed to be the mourning of the nation’s fallen service members, but it came to anchor the unofficial start of summer and a long weekend of discounts on everything from mattresses to lawnmowers .

The AAA Auto club said in a travel forecast that this holiday weekend could be “one of the records, especially at airports”, with more than 42 million Americans expected to travel 50 miles (80 kilometers) or more.

But for Manuel Castañeda Jr., 58, it will be a quiet day in Durand, Ill., outside of Rockford. He lost his father, a U.S. Marine who served in Vietnam, in an accident in California while training other Marines in 1966.

“Memorial Day is very personal,” said Castañeda, who also served in the Marines and Army National Guard, whose fallen men he knew. “It’s not just the stages. It’s not just the barbecue.

But he tries not to judge others who spend the holidays differently: “How can I expect them to understand the depth of what I feel when they haven’t experienced anything like it?”


It’s a day of reflection and remembrance for those who died while serving in the US military, according to the Congressional Research Service. The holiday is observed in part by the National Moment of Remembrance, which encourages all Americans to pause at 3 p.m. for a moment of silence.


The holiday stems from the American Civil War, which killed more than 600,000 servicemen – both Union and Confederate – between 1861 and 1865.

There is little controversy over the first national celebration of what was then called Decorating Day. This happened on May 30, 1868, after a Union veterans organization called for decorating war graves with flowers, which were in bloom.

The practice was already widespread at the local level. Waterloo, New York began an official celebration on May 5, 1866 and was later proclaimed the birthplace of the holiday.

Still, Boalsburg, Pennsylvania traces its first observance to October 1864, according to the Library of Congress. And women in some Confederate states were decorating graves before the war was over.

But David Blight, a Yale history professor, recalls May Day, 1865, when as many as 10,000 people, many of them black, held a parade, heard speeches and dedicated the graves of the Union dead in Charleston. , South Carolina.

A total of 267 Union soldiers died in a Confederate prison and were buried in a mass grave. After the war, members of black churches buried them in individual graves.

“What happened in Charleston has a claim to be the first, if it matters,” Blight told The Associated Press in 2011.

In 2021, a retired US Army lieutenant colonel cited the story in a Memorial Day speech in Hudson, Ohio. The ceremony organizers turned off his microphone because they said it was irrelevant to honor the city’s veterans. The organizers of the event subsequently resigned.


Someone has always lamented the drift of the holiday from its original meaning.

As early as 1869, The New York Times wrote that the holiday could become “sacrilegious” and no longer “sacred” if it focused more on pomp, dinners, and oratory.

In 1871, abolitionist Frederick Douglass feared that Americans were forgetting the impetus of the Civil War – slavery – when he gave a speech on Decoration Day at Arlington National Cemetery.

“We must never forget that the loyal soldiers who lie beneath this turf threw themselves between the nation and the nation’s destroyers,” Douglass said.

His concerns were valid, said Ben Railton, a professor of English and American studies at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts. Even though about 180,000 black men served in the Union Army, the holiday in many communities would essentially become “white memorial day,” especially after the rise of Jim Crow South, Railton said.

Meanwhile, the way the day was spent — at least by the country’s elected officials — could draw attention for years after the civil war. In the 1880s, then-President Grover Cleveland allegedly went fishing — and “people were appalled,” said Matthew Dennis, professor emeritus of history at the University of Oregon.

In 1911, the Indianapolis 500 held its inaugural race on May 30, drawing 85,000 spectators. An Associated Press report made no mention of the party — or any controversy.


Dennis said the power of Memorial Day had diminished somewhat with the addition of Armistice Day, which marked the end of World War I on November 11, 1918. Armistice Day became a national holiday in 1938 and was renamed Veterans Day in 1954.

An act of Congress changed Memorial Day from every May 30 to the last Monday in May in 1971. Veterans objected, “They didn’t want to be just a random Monday that people could forget,” Dennis said.

In 1972, Time Magazine said the party had become “a national three-day hootenanny that seems to have lost much of its original purpose”.


Even in the 19th century, funeral ceremonies were followed by leisure activities such as picnics and running races, Dennis said.

Vacations also evolved alongside baseball and the automobile, the five-day workweek, and summer vacation, according to the 2002 book, “A History of Memorial Day: Unity, Discord and the Pursuit of Happiness “.

In the middle of the 20th century, a small number of businesses defiantly began to open during the holidays.

Once the holidays shifted to Monday, “the traditional barriers against business began to crumble,” wrote authors Richard Harmond and Thomas Curran.

These days, Memorial Day sales and travel are embedded deep in the nation’s muscle memory. This weekend, 2.7 million more people will travel for the unofficial start of summer than last year – despite inflation, according to AAA.

Jason Redman, 48, a retired Navy SEAL who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he will be thinking of the friends he has lost. Thirty names are tattooed on his arm “for every guy I’ve personally known who died”.

He wants Americans to remember the dead — but also to have fun, knowing that lives were sacrificed to forge the holidays.

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