May 27, 2019 Katherine Haas

Remembrance and Retail: Why We Have Memorial Day Sales

They say that Memorial Day is the best time to buy a mattress. But how did the holiday, which started as a response to the Civil War, go from remembering fallen soldiers to reaping the benefits of retail sales? The truth is, the reason why we have Memorial Day sales is not unlike the commercialization of any other holiday.

A few sentences about Memorial Day’s origins

Let’s keep this part brief:

  • The Civil War happened, and approximately 620,000 soldiers died.
  • Several unrelated commemorations of the dead that included putting flowers on graves led to organized memorial observances across the country.
  • In May 1866, Waterloo, New York, claimed its first annual community-wide memorial service and was later recognized as the “Birthplace of Memorial Day.”
  • In May 1868, a general ordered that May 30 be set aside for decorating graves of those who died defending their country, which came to be known as “Decoration Day.”
  • In 1967, after World War II, federal law declared “Memorial Day” the official name.

So, how did we go from somber to celebration?

Though 150 years seems like plenty of time for Memorial Day to evolve into something other than its intended purpose, the surprising fact is, the shift happened pretty quickly after the holiday was established.

Early speeches for Memorial Day (then Decoration Day) made references to celebrating Union soldiers’ fight to end slavery. By the 1880s, somber songs played on the holiday were replaced with more uplifting tunes rallying around pride for country. After all, when acknowledging the dead, it’s not uncommon to pair mourning with a celebration of life, which is what started to happen.

Authors, historians, sociologists and other such scholars critiqued the changing tone of the day. After Decoration Day in 1875, the New York Tribune wrote, “The old pathos and solemnity of the act have vanished…,” and then in 1878, “It would be idle to deny that as individual sorrow for the fallen fades away the day gradually loses its best significance.”

In 1972, (after the holiday became part of a three-day weekend, but more on that in a minute), TIME wrote that Memorial Day had become “a three-day nationwide hootenanny that seems to have lost much of its original purpose.”

And here we are, still writing about it.

But the sales. We want to know why we have Memorial Day sales.

The impetus for why we have Memorial Day sales has to do with the holiday becoming a guaranteed day off for workers.

The federal government started the trend by giving Civil War veterans the day off to honor their comrades beginning in 1888. State governments passed individual laws declaring Memorial Day a legal holiday starting with New York in 1873. At this time, the holiday was designated as May 30, no matter what day of the week it fell on.

The holiday was changed from May 30 to the last Monday in May in 1971, in an effort to create a three-day weekend for workers.

Cue the opportunity to travel! And what does travel mean? Spending money.

Even for those not traveling, a day off from work means a day, in the eyes of retailers, for people to shop. Increasing commercialization of the Memorial Day holiday started with this shift to it being a three-day weekend in the 1970s. From there, the public image of the holiday for many became more about vacation and retail and less about commemorating the dead—especially for those with no ties to the military.

Back to mattresses…

As you can see, it doesn’t take much for a national holiday to turn into a commercial event. Besides the simple fact of having a day off from work, the time of year also has to do with why retailers have pegged Memorial Day weekend as an ideal time for sales. For example, summer is a prime time for moving—hence the mattress sales. Consumer Reports says that in 2019 specifically, May is also the best time of year to buy grills, freezers, decking material and blenders.

Relishing sales while paying your respects

Though power tool ads boasting “Best Savings of the Season,” may not be what the speech-givers at the first Memorial Day gatherings had in mind, the retail side of the holiday has become ingrained in our culture—whether we like it or not. In acknowledging why we have Memorial Day sales, also take a minute to recognize Memorial Day’s roots. From laying flowers graveside to a simple moment of silence—it’s the least we can do in being thankful for our freedom.

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