NORFOLK, Va. -- Memorial Day is supposed to be about mourning the nation's fallen service members, but it's come to anchor the unofficial start of summer and a long weekend of discounts on anything from mattresses to lawn mowers.
Auto club AAA said in a travel forecast that this holiday weekend could be "one for the record books, especially at airports," with more than 42 million Americans projected to travel 50 miles or more.
Federal officials said Friday that the number of air travelers had already hit a pandemic-era high. But for Manuel Castaneda Jr., 58, the day will be a quiet one in Durand, Ill., outside Rockford.
He lost his father, a U.S. Marine who served in Vietnam, in an accident in California while training other Marines in 1966.
"Memorial Day is very personal," said Castaneda, who also served in the Marines and Army National Guard, from which he knew men who died in combat. "It isn't just the specials. It isn't just the barbecue."
But he tries not to judge others who spend the holiday differently: "How can I expect them to understand the depth of what I feel when they haven't experienced anything like that?"
Memorial Day is a day of reflection and remembrance of those who died while serving in the U.S. military, according to the Congressional Research Service. The holiday is observed in part by the National Moment of Remembrance, which encourages all Americans to pause at 3 p.m. for a moment of silence.
The holiday stems from the American Civil War, which killed more than 600,000 service members -- Union and Confederate -- between 1861 and 1865.
There's little controversy over the first national observance of what was then called Decoration Day. It occurred May 30, 1868, after an organization of Union veterans called for decorating war graves with flowers, which were in bloom.
The practice was already widespread on a local level. Boalsburg, Pa., traced its first observance to October 1864, according to the Library of Congress. And women in some Confederate states were decorating graves before the war's end.
But David Blight, a Yale history professor, points to May 1, 1865, when as many as 10,000 people, many of them Black, held a parade, heard speeches and dedicated the graves of Union dead in Charleston, S.C.
A total of 267 Union troops had died at a Confederate prison and were buried in a mass grave. After the war, members of Black churches buried them in individual graves.
Matthew Dennis, an emeritus history professor at the University of Oregon said Memorial Day's potency diminished somewhat with the addition of Armistice Day, which marked World War I's end Nov. 11, 1918. Armistice Day became a national holiday by 1938 and was renamed Veterans Day in 1954.
An act of Congress changed Memorial Day from every May 30 to the last Monday in May in 1971. Dennis said the creation of the three-day weekend recognized that Memorial Day had long been transformed into a more generic remembrance of the dead, as well as a day of leisure.
Even in the 19th century, grave ceremonies were followed by leisure activities such as picnicking and foot races, Dennis said.
The holiday also evolved alongside baseball and the automobile, the five-day work week and summer vacation, according to the 2002 book "A History of Memorial Day: Unity, Discord and the Pursuit of Happiness."
In the mid-20th century, a small number of businesses began to open defiantly on the holiday.
Once the holiday moved to Monday, "the traditional barriers against doing business began to crumble," authors Richard Harmond and Thomas Curran wrote.
These days, Memorial Day sales and traveling are deeply woven into the nation's muscle memory.
Information for this article was contributed by David Koenig of The Associated Press.