How we  got to now A brief history of Memorial Day

Why is it that cooking indoors is so often bemoaned by men as women’s work, but as soon as the heat source is moved outside…. “Man make fire, man cook meat.” 

Memorial Day is synonymous with outdoor cooking. It’s one of the three most popular grilling days of the year, second only to the most ‘Murica holiday of all, the 4th of July. 

Why is that? How did a holiday that was originally designed as a sorrowful reminder of some 600,000 dead Civil War soldiers become reduced, or possibly enhanced, to a day that makes middle aged men put on their worst cargo shorts and overcook hamburgers on the grill while the kids chuck potato salad at each other and mom has one too many margaritas. As always, we have to go back before we can go forward. 

The origins of Memorial Day are foggy at best. It’s a little like the Reuben sandwich, or socialism — everyone claims to have invented it, no one knows who actually did. Around 25 different places in the US claim to have come up with Memorial Day, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. Most stories begin either during or shortly after the end of the Civil War. Macon and Columbus, Ga. both say they invented Memorial Day in 1866, as do Columbus Miss. and Richmond Va. Not to be outdone, the northern cities of Boalsburg, Penn. and Carbondale, Ill both cry ownership as well. Boalsburg says they held the first ceremony in 1864, and Carbondale has a stone plaque in one of their cemeteries stating the first ever Memorial Day celebration took place in that spot on April 29, 1866. A hundred years later President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed yet another city, Waterloo, New York, as the birthplace of Memorial Day. 

Much of the confusion stems from the informal nature of early ceremonies. The practice of placing flowers on the graves of soldiers has been around since way before Honest Abe, and as the graves multiplied in 1864-65, impromptu services became more and more common, especially so in the spring of 1865 as the war came to an end. 

The first time there was an official date for Memorial Day, then called Decoration Day, was in 1868. The holiday was celebrated nationally on May 30, and that date would remain the same for over a hundred years. After World War One the holiday was expanded to honor all US veterans, and Memorial Day remained mostly unchanged until 1968. 

That year congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which changed the date of four US holidays, including Memorial Day, to predetermined Mondays. This created an annual three-day weekend at the end of May, just as the weather was in the Goldilocks zone. And that’s when the real BBQ began. The law went into affect in 1971 and almost immediately Americans began using the long weekend to celebrate the beginning of summer, rather than just remembering fallen soldiers. But while this change solidified what we think of as the modern definition of Memorial Day, it was not the first time Americans kinda, sorta forgot what the day was all about. The tension surrounding the true purpose of Memorial Day is nearly as old as the holiday itself. 

In the early 20th century surviving Civil War veterans who belonged to a fraternal society called the Grand Army of the Republic, started getting miffed with Memorial Day celebrations. They thought younger generations had no respect for the nature of the holiday. It was supposed to be filled with sorrow and self-reflection, but those damn kids just wanted to drink their illegal booze and go swimming in pinstriped onesies. It’s funny to think that the generation those Civil War veterans were talking about would birth the generation that is today more connected with Memorial Day than any other group of Americans. 

It’s a trend as old as time, every generation thinks the one after them will ruin the world. We’re saying it right now about Gen Z, just like the crotchety Civil War vets were saying about the flappers in 1920. Even the granddaddy of them all, the Greatest Generation, was maligned by their elders. 

War correspondent Robert Sherrod wrote in 1943 that he didn’t think the generation of boys called on to fight the Axis was tough enough to get the job done. They were soft, spoiled, never-serious playboys who had no idea what they were getting into. He wrote that while he was on a ship in the South Pacific filled with Marines heading to Tarawa. Imagine someone having that opinion of the Greatest Generation today. 

Maybe that’s why we use Memorial Day as an excuse to eat grilled meat and drink too much beer. We are a nation of never-serious playboys, but we learned it from the best, or more appropriately, from the greatest. The cavalier attitude of American culture is well deserved, and Memorial Day is the perfect manifestation of that attitude. So this year, double the size of your burgers and stop for a second to think about all the vets that made the weekend possible. 

It’s America — you can do both. 

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