Memorial Day: What to know about the holiday and why we celebrate

With Memorial Day right around the corner, here is a look at why the holiday is more than just a travel-filled three-day weekend.

Once anointed as Decoration Day — and commemorated as a federal holiday in 1971 — the long-standing tradition of memorializing those killed while serving in the U.S. military got its origin from the Civil War.

The day's true origin is not entirely solidified, however. says that multiple American cities claim to have ushered in the holiday. Macon, Georgia; Richmond, Virginia; and Columbus, Mississippi, just to name a few.

Some historians also believe that the true first observance of the eventual holiday was in Charleston, S.C., in 1865, where freed slaves honored fallen Union prisoners held at a horse racing track turned prison by the Confederacy.

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A May 23, 2011, photo of the commemorative marker located in Hampton Park, S.C. immortalizing the 1865 honoring of Union soldiers who died at a Confederate prison.
A May 23, 2011, photo of the commemorative marker located in Hampton Park, S.C. immortalizing the 1865 honoring of Union soldiers who died at a Confederate prison.

Ultimately, the decision was made in 1966 by President Lyndon B. Johnson to declare Waterloo, N.Y., as Memorial Day's official birthplace on May 5, 1866, closing business and having townspeople decorate soldiers' graves with flags and flowers.

Two years to the day after the Waterloo event, the well-known tradition was continued as the aforementioned Decoration Day, organized by Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic — under the command of Gen. John A. Logan.

The order stated that May 30, 1868, is "designated 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, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land."

On May 30, 1873, former General and then-President Ulysses S. Grant oversaw the first large observance held at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia — sporting a crowd of around 5,000.

This tradition has carried over to today, as current presidential administrations will make the trip to Virginia to pay their respects on Memorial Day.

As the years rolled on, Memorial Day became reserved for those honoring soldiers who died during the Civil War. Following World War I, the day ballooned into a nationwide celebration of remembrance for those who died fighting in U.S. wars.

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When is Memorial Day?

Memorial Day is on May 29 in 2023. The day is observed on the last Monday in May each year.

Who gets Memorial Day off work?

Not everyone gets Memorial Day off, but all nonessential government offices will close in observance. Additionally, schools and many businesses close for the federal holiday.

What can I do over Memorial Day weekend?

There are plenty of things to do over the weekend. From cashing in on Memorial Day sales to traveling or spending it the traditional way and honoring fallen soldiers, the weekend has a plethora of options.

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What is the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day?

Memorial Day honors those who have died serving in U.S. wars, while Veterans Day, Nov. 11, is a celebration for all those who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Memorial Day: The history of the holiday and what it means