It’s a simple line to blur, but the difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day is an important one to recognize if you don’t want to make a fool of yourself in front of the honorable military members that you know.
There are also specific ways to celebrate these different days based on what they mean. So, to give you some clarity, we’re going through a brief history of both Veterans Day and Memorial Day and explaining the difference between them.
The history of Veterans Day began at the end of World War I which culminated on November 11, 1918. Over the years, people began celebrating and honoring the veterans of World War I with a holiday called Armistice Day, meaning peace after wartime.
The first official Armistice Day was celebrated in 1938 and at the time, only World War I veterans were honored. After all, World War I was supposed to be the “war to end all wars,” right?
Well, as we now know, there have been plenty of wars since 1918, and in 1954, after coming out of World War II and the Korean War, Armistice Day was changed to Veterans Day (still observed on November 11th) to honor and thank all American veterans who fought in all wars.
For a brief period in the early ‘70s, Veterans Day was moved to the fourth Monday in October to ensure government employees were given a certain number of workdays off each year. However, it didn’t catch on, and in 1974 President Ford reinstated November 11th as the official date of Veterans Day due to its historical significance.
Public institutions are closed on November 11th in observation of Veterans Day, and if the date falls on a Saturday or Sunday, closures occur on either the previous Friday or the following Monday, respectively.
The origins of Memorial Day date way back to the Civil War, where it was originally known as Decoration Day. It became a tradition, especially for women whose husbands fought for the Confederacy, to decorate headstones of fallen soldiers with flowers and ribbons, honoring their memory.
The first Memorial Day was officially known as Confederate Memorial Day and was celebrated in the South in 1874. It wouldn’t be until after World War II that the federal government agreed that a Memorial Day holiday was necessary to honor every soldier who gave their lives in battle for America.
But, since merging forces with a Confederate holiday was tricky in a political sense for obvious reasons, official recognition of the day took a while.
At first, politicians took the opportunity to start a conversation about uncomfortable Civil War topics and eventually things shifted from a celebration of the Confederacy to a Memorial Day to honor those who died for our country while serving in all wars.
Memorial Day now falls on the last Monday in May and also signifies the unofficial start of summer. Public institutions are closed on Memorial Day and a national moment of remembrance occurs at 3:00 p.m.
What is the difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day?
So, even with those explanations of what Veterans Day and Memorial Day are, you may still be confused about the difference between them. Fear not because you’re not alone in this confusion. Let’s explain.
Veterans Day is the day we honor veterans, meaning those who served in the military, whether or not they experienced wartime or peacetime. If they served in any branch of the armed forces and were given an honorable discharge, they’re considered a veteran; on Veterans Day, we take a whole day to thank them for their service.
Memorial Day, on the other hand, is the day we remember fallen soldiers who died in battle during their time in the military. In general, the keywords here are “in battle,” which suggests that the focus is on remembering military service members who passed away during service.
In some cases, we might memorialize veterans who have since passed away on Memorial Day, but even still, Veterans Day is the more appropriate day to honor deceased veterans if they died outside of battle.
So, there you have it. Veterans Day honors and celebrates all veterans from all wars, living and dead, and Memorial Day is a day to remember and honor those who died in battle fighting for their country. And that’s the difference.
How to Celebrate Veterans Day and Memorial Day
When it comes to observing Veterans Day and Memorial Day, some activities might overlap, but it’s important to understand why you’re doing something and the intention behind it.
Starting with Veterans Day, you’ll want to celebrate by focusing on veterans’ issues. Perhaps you’ll volunteer at your local VA or spend time with the veteran in your family or circle of friends. If your grandfather was a veteran who has recently passed away in old age, it would also be appropriate to visit his grave on Veterans Day.
As for Memorial Day, you might want to celebrate with more memorialized occasions. On Memorial Day, perhaps it’s more important to visit a war museum or memorial, even if you don’t have a personal connection to the war itself.
If you do have a personal connection to someone who lost their life in combat, Memorial Day is an appropriate day to visit their grave and perhaps decorate it in a special way. It’s more a day of reflection and a time to honor the memory of those who were lost in battle.
Especially in the case of Memorial Day, as the unofficial start of summer, the three-day weekend often turns into a beach party with red, white, and blue bathing suits. Go ahead and have a good time but it’s important to remember why we have the day off on Memorial Day.
Perhaps before you take the day off for granted, you can visit a veteran, donate to a cause that supports veterans, or observe a moment of silence with the rest of the country in memory of fallen soldiers instead.