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Why is Memorial Day observed in May?

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

(Read caption) American flags adorn grave markers at United States Soldiers' and Airmen's Home National Cemetery (USSAH) in Washington, on Friday, May 27, in preparation for Memorial Day. USSAH National Cemetery is the first national cemetery and is the predecessor of Arlington National Cemetery.

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Memorial Day used to be called Decoration Day. Under either name, it’s a holiday long associated with the rebirth of spring and early summer.

Today it is the weekend that municipal pools open and traffic jams on beach roads begin to form. But it also remains the official day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service.

Why is it observed in late May? Look outside. See the roses and lilies of the field? The “decoration” in Decoration Day referred to ornamentation, not to a military medal. This is the time when flowers are blooming in most regions of the United States, and they can be picked and used to decorate the graves of the fallen.

Thus in 1868, Gen. John Logan, commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the veterans’ organization for Union Civil War soldiers, issued a general order setting aside May 30 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.”

But that was only a beginning. North and South remained split on many things in the decades following the Civil War, and the day to remember their late soldiers was one of them.

Southern observances for the Confederate dead arose independently of Logan’s order, notes Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust in her book on the post-Civil War period, “This Republic of Suffering.”

In some locations, they were held on May 10, the anniversary of Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s death. In others, they were held on April 26, the day Gen. Joseph E. Johnston surrendered to Union Gen. William Sherman in 1865, effectively ending the war.

A number of Southern states still hold a Confederate Memorial Day on a different date than that used for the national holiday.

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More than two dozen cities, North and South, claim to have been the first to hold Decoration Day observances, according to Ms. Faust.

“But these observances seem instead to have grown up largely independently and, for at least half a century after the Civil War, to have continued to reflect persisting sectional divisions among both the living and the dead,” Faust writes.

World War I made Memorial/Decoration Day a truly national holiday. That was when observances began to memorialize the dead of all US wars, not just the Civil War.

In 1968, Congress passed a Uniform Monday Holiday Act that ensured a number of federal holidays, including Memorial Day, were scheduled so as to create a three-day weekend. That was when Memorial Day was set as the last Monday in May.

As Memorial Day developed into summer’s kickoff, the holiday’s origins became more and more obscure to many Americans. So in 2000, Congress passed a law promoting a National Moment of Remembrance, a sort of observance within a holiday. This statute calls for all Americans to pause at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day for a minute to ponder the holiday’s true meaning.

“This memorial observance represents a simple and unifying way to commemorate our history and honor the struggle to protect our freedoms,” said then-President Clinton in an executive order that accompanied congressional action.

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