Patriotic Holidays & Their Origins

To most Americans, summer includes swimming, sand, sun, and overall good time fun. It’s also the season packed with patriotic holidays. Though summer doesn’t officially begin until June 21st, the majority of us bookend the season with two such holidays. Memorial Day kicks it off at the end of May, signaling to kids all across the country that the summer vacation will soon commence. In early September, Labor Day serves as the last hurrah for barbeques, campfires, and, thankfully, mosquitoes. In between, the mid-summer blowout of the Fourth of July is celebrated. Fireworks explode high up in the dark night sky as the country joins in shouting “Happy Birthday!” to America. In this post, we’ll tell you about the origins of these hallmarks of summer — and, more importantly, our country’s history — and how they’ve been celebrated over time.

Memorial Day

This holiday can be traced back to the years following the Civil War. Communities throughout the country were informally honoring the women and men who had died in the war in various ways. In 1866, in Columbus, Mississippi, a small group of women placed flowers on the graves of Confederate and Union soldiers who had lost their lives in the Battle of Shiloh. In that same year in Waterloo, New York, the contested, yet official birthplace of the holiday, a ceremony to honor local veterans was held, businesses were closed, and flags were flown at half-mast. The first large-scale observance of “Decoration Day” as it was initially called by General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic was held on May 30, 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Spring flowers, wreaths, and small American flags were placed at veterans’ graves.

Over time, the annual practice continued and state legislatures sanctioned the holiday, but Decoration Day didn’t become nationally observed until 1971. By that time, the holiday had evolved to honor the dead from all American wars. The act of Congress that established Memorial Day also changed the date of the observance from May 30th to the last Monday in May. Today, veterans’ graves in Arlington Cemetery are still decorated, parades are held in towns, and the first barbeques of the season are enjoyed in backyards throughout the country. The importance of the holiday was reiterated in 2000 with the National Moment of Remembrance Act, which seeks to “encourage citizens to dedicate themselves to the values and principles for which those heroes of the United States died” and asks all Americans to observe one minute of silence at 3:00pm local time each Memorial Day.


Independence Day

The Declaration of Independence — that famous, founding document written by Thomas Jefferson — was adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. We’ve been celebrating the historic day ever since and in much the same way as it was originally observed: parades, fireworks, bonfires, and the like. But did you know that one very famous patriot mistakenly predicted in a letter to his wife that July 2nd would be the country’s “great anniversary Festival” for generations to come? John Adams assumed this date would be of most historical importance because it was on that day that the Second Continental Congress voted in favor of a resolution delegate Richard Henry Lee had introduced the previous month, which called for the separation from Great Britain, the formation of foreign alliances, and a plan for confederation. However, the Congress didn’t adopt Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, which was inspired by Lee’s Resolution, until the fourth and most Congressional delegates didn’t sign it until August 2nd, 1776.

In 1777, on the first anniversary of Independence Day, the city of Philadelphia commemorated the event. In towns throughout New England, bonfires made of barrels and casks were piled high and set alight. In 1781, Massachusetts was the first state to officially recognize July 4th as a public holiday, but it wasn’t until 1870 that federal employees were given the day off as an unpaid holiday (it became a paid holiday in 1938). That didn’t mean it wasn’t a big deal across the country during all those years in between. Local advertisements for fireworks appeared as early as 1800 in New York City. In 1801, during John Adams’ presidency, the White House hosted the first Fourth of July public reception. In 1826 the Jubilee of Freedom marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, but sadly John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day. In 1866, 10,000 veterans marched in a parade in Philadelphia. Today, 238 years later, the freedom that previous generations sacrificed and fought for continues to inspire individuals from all over the world to pledge allegiance to America in citizenship ceremonies across the country.

Labor Day

Today, we still celebrate Labor Day in the way it was originally intended: as a relaxing break from the daily grind of work coupled with reverence for the American worker. But the holiday, held on the first Monday in September, was originally intended to rally support for issues like poor working conditions and low wages that were related to the labor movement, which gained momentum in the latter half of the 1800s. According to the former historian for the U.S. Department of Labor, Linda Stinson, the inaugural Labor Day event was held in New York City on September 5, 1882, and featured a parade of unions followed by a picnic and speeches in Wendel’s Elm Park. 10,000 workers took a day off from work (and pay) to participate.

In the years following the 1882 event, which was conceived and carried out by New York’s Central Labor Union, local municipalities began to recognize and celebrate Labor Day. By 1887, Oregon became the first state to officially celebrate the holiday and twenty three states followed suit. By 1894 it became a national holiday, created by an act of Congress during a period of labor unrest. The act was “signed by President Grover Cleveland as a reluctant election-year compromise” in the wake of a strike involving Pullman railroad car workers that had become a national issue involving federal troops. Nineteen years later, in 1913, the U.S. Department of Labor was created after years of campaigning for a Cabinet level department by leaders in the labor movement. Many of the reforms called for by the labor movement since the mid-to-late 1800s were not met until the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed by Congress in 1938 during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency. Most Americans today view the Labor Day weekend as the official send-off party for the summer, but those within the labor movement continue to emphasize the historical importance of the holiday by giving public addresses and raising awareness about current labor-related issues.

We hope that you’re enjoying your “summer” so far, and that you’ve learned a thing or two about some of our country’s most important, patriotic holidays. If there is another American holiday or historical event that you’d like to know more about, please tell us. We’ll do the research for you and share our findings with our followers here and on Twitter and Facebook.