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What's The Difference Between Memorial Day and Veterans Day?

Updated on May 26, 2020

Days of Rembrance

It's unfortunately easy to think of Memorial Day only as the day that kicks off the summer beach season and Veterans Day as a day later in the year on which you might or might not remember there's a parade downtown. But these two special days have a much deeper meaning.


Memorial Day

Memorial Day, celebrated on the last Monday in May, is a United States federal holiday dedicated to remembering all Americans who have died while in military service.

The origins of Memorial Day are a bit murky. While the practice of adorning the graves of dead soldiers with flowers and other items of tribute goes back to the beginning of recorded history, some of the first organized, large-scale Decoration Days began around the time of the American Civil War. One of the first occurrences was in Savannah on July 21, 1862, as Confederate ladies commemorated the first anniversary of the first major battle of the war, the Battle of Manassas. A second early ceremony took place the following year at the dedication of the cemetery at the Gettysburg Battlefield. Another notable instance of honoring the American dead took place on May 1, 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina. Taking place less than a month after Lee's surrender at Appomattox, the occasion saw former slaves venerating deceased Union prisoners of war who had been been buried in unmarked graves. Several other places lay claim to having been the birthplace of the holiday as well, including Boalsburg, Pennsylvania and Waterloo, New York - the latter of which has the distinction of having been acknowledged by both Congressional resolution and Presidential proclamation as being the official birthplace of Memorial day.

No matter how it began, the idea of Decoration Day quickly spread from state to state, becoming an official holiday in every state in the north by 1890. Although the day was called "Memorial Day" as early as 1882, the name "Decoration Day" stuck around for another hundred years or so, until it was made a national holiday in 1967. Originally set to to occur on May 30th every year, In 1971 the date was moved to the current floating scheme of being on the last Monday every May, ensuring it always happens as part of a three-day weekend.


Veterans Day

Veterans Day is intended to honor all those who have served in the United States Armed Forces, as opposed to being limited to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, which is the purpose of Memorial Day. Veterans Day is celebrated annually on November 11th.

While Americans have always had a special place in our hearts for those who serve dating back to the beginning of the Republic, Veterans Day has its real origins in Armistice Day, instituted by Woodrow Wilson in 1919 to honor those who died in World War I. Congress declared another observance two years later to coincide with the dedication of what would come to be known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a ceremony in which an anonymous American who was killed on a battlefield in France was interred in Arlington National Cemetery.

Armistice Day was so well received that it was made a permanent federal holiday in 1938. In 1945, a veteran named Raymond Weeks urged General Dwight Eisenhower to work to expand Armistice Day to honor veterans, not just those who had died in World War I. Those efforts were successful as, nine years later, former-general-now-President Eisenhower signed the bill creating the modern Memorial Day.

It's worth noting that, though Veterans Day honors military veterans, the text of the original legislation describes the holiday as "a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace."

And finally, "Veterans Day" officially doesn't contain an apostrophe. I checked. :)


Final Thoughts

So, there you have it. In a nutshell, Veterans Day honors all who served in the military, while Memorial Day is a chance to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the service.

Americans love a holiday, and typically surround them with picnics, travel, family and friends, the beach, and having fun... the "pursuit of happiness," as it were. Those are all wonderful activities, and are at least a small part of the American culture that the men and women in uniform have given of themselves to protect. But next time one of these holidays rolls around, please do set aside some time to think about their sacrifice, thank a veteran, or otherwise remember what the days are intended to remind us of.

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