How Memorial Day Went From Somber Occasion to Summer Celebration

For as long as Memorial Day in the United States has been the widely acknowledged unofficial start of the summer season, Americans have been complaining that the holiday isn’t celebrated the way it’s supposed to be to be. When TIME commented in 1972 that the holiday had become “a three-day nationwide hootenanny that seems to have lost much of its original purpose,” the magazine was already comparatively late to bemoaning Memorial Day’s party reputation. That’s not surprising considering that the day began as a way to remember the staggering 620,000 people who were killed during the Civil War, and is now best known as a time for going to the beach or do some shopping.

What’s perhaps more surprising is that this tug-of-war between solemn remembrance and summertime fun is almost as old as the holiday itself.

The original vision for the day, as expressed by Union General John A. Logan, the commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a powerful national veterans association of Union soldiers, emphasized honor and dignity. “Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan,” he wrote in his order to