By BEN FINLEY (Associated Press)
NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Memorial Day should be about mourning the nation’s fallen service members, but it’s come to seal the unofficial start of summer and a long weekend of discounts on everything from mattresses to lawn mowers.
The AAA Auto Club said in a travel forecast that this holiday weekend could be “one for the record books, especially at airports,” with more than 42 million Americans expected to drive 50 miles (80 kilometers) or more. Federal officials said Friday that the number of air travelers has already reached a pandemic-era high.
But it will be a quiet day for Manuel Castaneda Jr., 58, in Durand, Illinois, outside Rockford. He lost his father, a US 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 National Guard, with whom he knew people who died in combat. “It’s not just features. It’s not just barbecue.”
But he tries not to judge those who celebrate the holiday differently: “How can I expect them to understand the depth of what I feel, if they have not experienced anything like it?”
WHAT IS THE OFFICIAL PURPOSE OF MEMORIAL DAY?
It is a day of reflection and remembrance for those who died while serving in the US military, according to the US Congressional Research Service. The holiday is marked in part by the National Moment of Remembrance, which calls on all Americans to pause at 3:00 p.m. for a moment of silence.
WHAT IS THE ORIGIN OF THE HOLIDAY?
The holiday dates back to the American Civil War, which saw the deaths of more than 600,000 soldiers, both Union and Confederate, between 1861 and 1865.
There is no dispute about the first national celebration of what was then called Decoration Day. It happened on May 30, 1868, after an organization of Union veterans called for the decoration of war graves with flowers that had bloomed.
The practice has already been spread at the local level. Waterloo, New York, began officially celebrating May 5, 1866, and was later declared the birthplace of the holiday.
However, according to the Library of Congress, the first celebration took place in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania in October 1864. And women in some states of the Confederacy decorated graves even before the end of the war.
But David Blythe, a history professor at Yale University, points to May 1, 1865, when about 10,000 people, many of them black, marched, heard speeches and dedicated graves in Charleston, South Carolina.
A total of 267 Union soldiers died in Confederate prisons and were buried in a mass grave. After the war, believers of black churches buried them in separate graves.
“What happened in Charleston has a right to claim first place if it matters,” Blythe told the Associated Press in 2011.
In 2021, a retired US Army lieutenant colonel brought up the story in a Memorial Day speech in Hudson, Ohio. The organizers of the ceremony turned off his microphone, because they said it had nothing to do with honoring the city’s veterans. Later, the organizers of the event resigned.
HAS MEMORIAL DAY ALWAYS BEEN A SOURCE OF KNOWLEDGE?
Someone has always lamented the departure of the holiday from its original meaning.
As early as 1869, The New York Times wrote that the holiday could become “holy” rather than “holy” if it focused more on pageantry, dinners and oratories.
In 1871, Frederick Douglass feared that Americans were forgetting the cause of the Civil War—slavery—when he delivered the Decoration Day speech at Arlington National Cemetery.
“We must never forget that the faithful soldiers who rest under this sod threw themselves between the nation and the destroyers of the nation,” Douglas said.
His concerns were well-founded, said Ben Railton, a professor of English and American studies at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts. Although an estimated 180,000 black men served in the Union Army, the holiday would essentially become a “White Memorial Day” in many communities, especially after the rise of the Jim Crow South, Railton said.
Meanwhile, how the day was spent — at least by the country’s elected officials — may draw scrutiny for years after the Civil War. In the 1880s, then-President Grover Cleveland is said to have gone fishing — and “people were horrified,” said Matthew Dennis, professor emeritus of history at the University of Oregon.
By 1911, the Indianapolis 500 held its inaugural race on May 30, drawing 85,000 spectators. The Associated Press report made no mention of the holiday or any controversy.
HOW HAS MEMORIAL DAY CHANGED?
Dennis said the potency of Remembrance Day has diminished somewhat with the addition of Armistice Day, which marked the end of World War I on Nov. 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. Dennis said the creation of the three-day weekend recognized that Memorial Day had long since evolved into a more general remembrance of the dead as well as a day of leisure.
In 1972, Time magazine said the holiday had become “a three-day national holiday that seems to have lost much of its original purpose.”
WHY IS MEMORIAL DAY ASSOCIATED WITH SALES AND TRAVEL?
Dennis said that even in the 19th century, grave ceremonies were accompanied by entertainment such as picnics and foot races.
The holiday also evolved alongside baseball and the automobile, the five-day work week and summer vacation, according to the 2002 book, The Story of Memorial Day: Unity, Discord, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
In the middle of the 20th century, few businesses began to defiantly open on the holiday.
As soon as the holiday was moved to Monday, “traditional barriers to doing business began to break down,” authors Richard Harmond and Thomas Curran write.
These days, Memorial Day sales and travel are deeply embedded in the national memory. 2.7 million more people will travel this weekend to mark the unofficial start of summer compared to last year, adjusted for inflation, according to AAA.
The Transportation Security Administration said 2.66 million people were screened at airport security checkpoints on Thursday, about 2,500 more than last Friday and the highest number since the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2019. The Federal Aviation Administration predicted Thursday would be the busiest travel day of the holiday season, with more than 51,000 airline flights.
Meanwhile, Jason Redman, 48, a retired Navy SEAL who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he will be thinking about the friends he lost. He has thirty names tattooed on his arm “for every guy I’ve ever personally known who died.”
He wants Americans to remember the fallen, but also to enjoy themselves, knowing that their lives were sacrificed for the holidays.
This article removed a quote from Matthew Dennis, a professor at the University of Oregon, saying veterans objected to moving Memorial Day to Monday. They opposed a 1968 law that moved Veterans Day to the fourth Monday in October. In 1978, Congress returned the celebration of Veterans Day to its traditional date of November 11.
Associated Press airline writer David Koenig in Dallas contributed to this report.