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What Memorial Day Really Means

Memorial Day is a happy occasion for most of us in the United States.

It's a three-day weekend generally marking the beginning of summer. We celebrate that with trips down the shore, big barbecues, road trips, and pool parties.

But, historically, Memorial Day is a much more somber event, and it's important that we remember the roots of the day as we make our celebrations.

Memorial Day started after the Civil War to honor men and women who died in military service.

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People around the newly-reunited country held memorials in the springtime for soldiers who had died in the war. These memorials included decorating graves with flowers and praying.

They were happening in various towns, but the government in 1966 said that Waterloo, New York was the official birthplace of Memorial Day, according to History.

Three years after the Civil War ended, a Decoration Day was called for.

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General John A. Logan, who led an organization for Civil War veterans on the North side, called for May 30, 1868 to be designated a national Decoration Day.

He said,

The 30th 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.

That particular date was chosen, actually, because it had no significance. No specific battle happened on that day, so it was a clear day to celebrate all fallen soldiers.

Southern states had their own separate day to honor fallen soldiers, and some states actually still celebrate a separate Confederate Memorial Day -- in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Texas.

After World War I, Decoration Day -- aka Memorial Day -- became a day to celebrate fallen soldiers of all wars.

That's when Memorial Day really started becoming a big, national holiday.

Memorial Day was officially set by Congress in 1968. They passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which set the last Monday in May as Memorial Day and to declare it a federal holiday.

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This act went into effect in 1971 (politics! The slowest!). Over four decades later, Memorial Day has evolved into what we now know it, but it is still in honor of America's fallen soldiers.

While we have barbecues and beach parties, there are also memorials for American soldiers who have died.

This includes small American flags placed on each grave at Arlington National Cemetery. The president or vice president also usually lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Citations: The History of Memorial Day (PBS), Memorial Day (History)