Memorial Day is one of America’s most confusing holidays. Depending on the celebrant, it can be a day of grief, glory—or backyard barbecues.
It’s not a bad thing to have such disparate takes on a day of remembrance. And don’t worry: You’re not a bad person if you choose to sit back and enjoy your day off. But sometimes it pays to think about why we get the day off in the first place and ponder the mysterious forces that bind hot dogs, tears, and flags all together.
Decoration Day, as the holiday was once known, arose in the years after the Civil War as a way to grieve for the 750,000 soldiers who had perished over four bloody years. Families who stifled their mourning during wartime sought public ways to pay tribute to the fallen in peacetime. Understandably, graves become a focus for the bereaved, and mourners took flowers to cemeteries to decorate them.
This practice first received semi-official sanction in 1868 when General John Alexander Logan, the head of a large fraternal organization of Union veterans, designated a day each year “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.” Southerners didn’t take too kindly to this initial effort, but by 1890 all the Northern states had recognized the holiday.
This emphasis on the Northern dead wasn’t just born of sectional spite. The ultimate sacrifice made by hundreds of thousands of men to preserve the Union elevated the value of the nation to its citizens. Lacking the traditional building blocks of other nations (such as centuries of shared history on the land or ancient blood ties), the U.S. had long had a difficult time forging a unifying national culture. The idealistic nature of American nationhood left people hungry for a more flesh-and-blood connection to their country.