While much remains unclear about the actual origins of Memorial Day, in 1966, the Federal Government declared Waterloo, New York as the official 'birthplace of Memorial Day'. Waterloo first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866 with an annual, community-wide event in which businesses closed and the town residents decorated the graves of the fallen with wreaths and flags.
According to The History Channel's website:
"On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month: 'The 30th of May, 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...'"
May 30th was originally called Decoration Day and was chosen because it did not fall on the anniversary of any particular Civil War battle. On the first Decoration Day in 1868, then General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery. There were 5,000 participants that day who decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who are buried there. Originally, Decoration Day was chosen as a day of remembrance for the Civil War - however, after the United States became involved in World War I, the day evolved into a remembrance of all members of the Armed Forces who have been lost in conflict. May 30th continued to be the date of celebration until 1968 when Congress passed a law establishing Memorial Day as the last Monday in the month of May, allowing for a 3-day weekend for all federal employees.
In watching the news this year and seeing the coverage of various parades, the laying of the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by President Obama, and the remembrances at The Intrepid in NYC, I was struck by the words of one WWII veteran. (I am paraphrasing here) - he said "We know this is a weekend for barbecues and family gatherings. We know this is time to celebrate. But if you just take the time to remember those who have died, take a minute today to remember what Memorial Day is all about. That would be enough."