The aftermath of the American Civil War saw the beginnings of a day to remember and pay tribute to soldiers who had given their lives during that conflagration.  The history may date to a celebration in Charleston, SC after the Confederacy fell, but the federal government has declared that the official birthplace of Memorial Day is in Waterloo, NY.  The first celebration there was on May 5, 1866, when businesses closed and townspeople decorated graves with flowers and flags.  On May 5, 1868, General John Logan called for a national day of remembrance later in May, to be called Decoration Day because it was not an anniversary of any particular battle.   On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, at which about 5000 participants decoration about 20,000 Union and Confederate graves.

By 1890, the northern states had made Decoration Day state holidays.  Southern states continued to honor the dead on separate days until after World War I.  In the aftermath of World War I, the holiday evolved to commemorate all American military personnel who died in all wars.  

The date of May 30 for Decoration Day was changed by Congress in 1968 by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act to create three-day weekend holidays for federal workers.  In that same law, Congress made Memorial Day a federal holiday to be celebrated on the last Monday of each May.  The law went into effect in 1971.

Memorial Day traditions include parades and visiting cemeteries and memorials.  Some wear a red poppy in remembrance of the fallen, a tradition that grew out of World War I.  Memorial Day is also the unofficial beginning of summer, and Americans celebrate with barbeques, picnics and outdoor activities over the long weekend in anticipation of the summer.