• History

How Memorial Day Went From Somber Occasion to Summer Celebration

9 minute read

For as long as Memorial Day in the United States has been the widely acknowledged unofficial start of the summer season, Americans have been complaining that the holiday isn’t celebrated the way it’s supposed to be. When TIME commented in 1972 that the holiday had become “a three-day nationwide hootenanny that seems to have lost much of its original purpose,” the magazine was already comparatively late to bemoaning Memorial Day’s party reputation. That’s not surprising considering that the day began as a way to remember the staggering 620,000 people who were killed during the Civil War, and is now best known as a time for going to the beach or do some shopping.

What’s perhaps more surprising is that this tug-of-war between solemn remembrance and summertime fun is almost as old as the holiday itself.

The original vision for the day, as expressed by Union General John A. Logan, the commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a powerful national veterans association of Union soldiers, emphasized honor and dignity. “Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan,” he wrote in his order to organize such a day. In 1868, some 5,000 people responded to his call by visiting the then-new Arlington National Cemetery on the appointed day, to hear future President James Garfield deliver an address on the “immortal” virtue of the war dead and the decorate the graves of the soldiers buried there with flags and flowers.

Already the occasion was one for mixed emotions: somberly remembering the dead, but also celebrating the cause they gave their lives to further.

As Yale historian David Blight writes in his book Race and Reunion, early speeches for Decoration Day — the name originally given to the holiday and used alongside “Memorial Day” until the mid 20th Century — often celebrated the Union soldiers’ fight to end slavery and to preserve the union. (Confederate Memorial Day, which is still celebrated in a few places, was something different.) Blight quotes a handwritten missive from a newspaper correspondent who described an 1865 ceremony held by former slaves in Charleston, S.C., at which the attendees’ signs of emotion are specifically described as “tears of joy.”

But, while the New York Times in 1869 mentioned how crucial it would be to “keep ever in mind the original purpose” of the day, not much more than a decade after the end of the war some were already seeing that the “joy” side of Memorial Day was beginning to outweigh the remembrance. “The old pathos and solemnity of the act have vanished, too, except in very quiet country places,” the New York Tribune wrote after Decoration Day 1875. The Tribune continued its laments in 1878: “It would be idle to deny that as individual sorrow for the fallen fades away the day gradually loses its best significance. The holiday aspect remains; how much longer the political character of the observance will linger we dare not guess.”

It wasn’t too long before the sense that something had changed was more widely acknowledged. “Passions were cooling” by the 1880s, historian James McPherson has written about the history of Memorial Day, and gloomy songs such as “Strew Blossoms on Their Graves” and “Cheers or Tears,” were replaced with more “spirited tunes” like “Rally ‘Round the Flag,” “Marching Through Georgia” or “Dixie.”

The late 19th century context in which the holiday emerged contributed to the shift. For one thing, there were only a handful of holidays on which workers got a day off, note historians Richard P. Harmond and Thomas J. Curran in their book on Memorial Day. In 1873, New York made Decoration Day one such holiday, with business suspended. By 1890 all of the Northern states had followed New York, and in 1889 Congress made May 30 a national holiday. (The date only switched to the last Monday in May by an act passed in 1968). Decoration Day was thus an unusual respite in their schedules, an opportunity for sports fans to attend afternoon games or for families to take excursions to beaches like Coney Island. It soon became common practice to split the difference on Memorial Day, visiting a cemetery in the morning and then relaxing in the afternoon.

But not everyone was pleased about the change.

A Cincinnati Enquirer headline asked “Is Memorial Day To Be Desecrated By Holiday Sports” in 1883. President Grover Cleveland made headlines in 1887 after he was accused of spending Memorial Day fishing. In 1889 the Grand Army of the Republic noted the “growing tendency to make Memorial Day an occasion for festivity and indulgence in games and sports foreign to the purpose of the day and the sacred spirit which ought to characterize it” during their annual meeting, and decried the “indulgence in public sports, pastimes and all amusements on Memorial Day as inconsistent with the proper purposes of the day.” In Chicago in 1896, Rev. Dr. William B. Leach of St. Paul’s Methodist Episcopal Church despaired at the “shame” brought on when as a nation “we so forget ourselves as to make Decoration Day a day for hilarious, madcap fun, without thought of the boys, old now and weak, whose hearts are bleeding and torn afresh with memories.” The New York Tribune wrote that same year of people who criticized that the day was “desecrated” by “thoughtless hilarity and sports and pastimes” (though the paper noted that the holiday’s “real function” to “stimulate patriotism” was not mutually exclusive with “patriotic joy”). In 1898, one supporter of the GAR told the New York Times that the Grand Army “prays for a cessation of that open sport which detracts from the solemnity of the occasion.” By 1910, some members of the GAR even suggested ending Memorial Day altogether rather than have it continue as a day for parties.

None of that naysaying seemed to have much effect on how people spent their Memorial Days. By the time the first Indianapolis 500 race was held on May 30, 1911, it wasn’t a hotly contested or unusual event.

And, ironically, it turned out that the movement of Memorial Day away from its Civil War origins would help the holiday endure for decades to come.

The GAR would reach its peak membership near the end of the 19th century, as a younger generation who hardly remembered the Civil War was coming into its own — and yet Memorial Day lived on. By then, it was well entrenched in American social life and it didn’t need a direct connection to the Civil War to be meaningful.

Even after the very last Civil War veteran died in the 1950s, newspapers and the public continued to express the idea that there are certain things one ought to do on Memorial Day, including the by-then-traditional morning visit to a cemetery — by then extended to honor those killed in all American wars — and the afternoon festivities. The New York Times 1961 described the “taste of Memorial Day” as “red crepe poppies in lapel buttonholes, gleamingly scrubbed Boy Scouts, politicians speechifying in the spring sunshine, wreaths on graves, a languid holiday afternoon at home or at the beach.”

When pioneering sociologist William Lloyd Warner explored the meaning of Memorial Day in his 1959 book The Living and the Dead, about symbolic behavior in America, he argued that Memorial Day provided an opportunity to confront anxiety about death collectively, and that the traditional community parade created a feeling of “euphoria” that mimicked the sense of group strength people felt during war. The secular and sacred aspects of the day combined pleasure and recreation with mourning and ceremonies to express sorrow and unity. For some people the day leaned more to one than the other, but when Warner was observing it in the 1940s and ’50s, Memorial Day — including its more somber aspects — was still a shared ritual for Americans.

It was in the decades that followed, at least for those without a personal connection to the military, that the memorial aspects faded even more, as did many of the objections to that shift.

After Vietnam, argued religious historian Catherine Albanese in 1974, the collective nature of Memorial Day that Warner had described not so long before had eroded. The country had become fragmented about what it meant for an American soldier to die, and the purpose of war in general. With the holiday’s move to Monday at the start of the 1970s, increasing commercialization also turned the weekend into an occasion for shopping, not just sports and vacations. Visiting the graves of those who died during wartime, though it remains a part of the day for some and is still observed at cemeteries like Arlington, became a less public part of the day.

But, as Albanese pointed out, the changing way of marking Memorial Day wasn’t a sign of the day’s imminent end, or of moral degeneracy or the collapse of American unity. Rather, she wrote, it’s natural for social conditions to evolve, and for observances to ebb and flow in their meaning. “While it might be overly dramatic to characterize Americans as singing a requiem for Memorial Day, they are already quietly inscribing its epitaph,” she wrote in closing. “And far from being apocalyptic, their dis-sentiment seems to be an ordinary cultural event.”

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