What Is the Difference Between Veterans Day & Memorial Day?


Today is Veterans Day 2020, where we honor military veterans and active-duty personnel. In May every year, we also honor veterans on Memorial Day. So what exactly is the difference between the two holidays? Veterans Day honors and celebrates all veterans and active-duty personnel, while Memorial Day is set aside to honor those who have died. For this reason, while it’s appropriate to say Happy Veterans Day, it’s not appropriate to say Happy Memorial Day.

Veterans Day Honors All Veterans & Active Duty Personnel

Veterans Day focuses on all active-duty personnel and military veterans. It’s a day of celebrating those who have served to protect us. The holiday started out celebrating the anniversary of the end of World War I. It was originally called Armistice Day, but the name was replaced by Veterans Day in 1954. Today, it honors all veterans who have served in the U.S. military (or who still serve.)

On November 11, 1918, World War I was officially ended. On November 11, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson issued the following message about Armistice Day:

A year ago today our enemies laid down their arms in accordance with an armistice which rendered them impotent to renew hostilities, and gave to the world an assured opportunity to reconstruct its shattered order and to work out in peace a new and juster set of international relations. The soldiers and people of the European Allies had fought and endured for more than four years to uphold the barrier of civilization against the aggressions of armed force. We ourselves had been in the conflict something more than a year and a half.

With splendid forgetfulness of mere personal concerns, we remodeled our industries, concentrated our financial resources, increased our agricultural output, and assembled a great army, so that at the last our power was a decisive factor in the victory. We were able to bring the vast resources, material and moral, of a great and free people to the assistance of our associates in Europe who had suffered and sacrificed without limit in the cause for which we fought.

Out of this victory there arose new possibilities of political freedom and economic concert. The war showed us the strength of great nations acting together for high purposes, and the victory of arms foretells the enduring conquests which can be made in peace when nations act justly and in furtherance of the common interests of men.

To us in America the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service, and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of nations.”

In 1938, November 11 was officially dedicated as Armistice Day to celebrate World War I veterans, Military.com shared. But then in 1954, after World War II and the Korean War, Congress changed the holiday to Veterans Day to honor all veterans of wars, including World War I. Veterans Day is still celebrated on November 11, but if it falls on a weekend then it is officially observed either the Friday before (if it’s on a Saturday) or the Monday after (if it’s on a Sunday), allowing federal employees to still have a day off.

Memorial Day Focuses on Those Who Are No Longer With Us

Memorial Day is observed on the last Monday of May. So while Veterans Day may be on different days of the week (but always November 11), Memorial Day is always on a Monday. That’s why you might have been surprised about Veterans Day being on a Wednesday this year, if you subconsciously got it mixed up with Memorial Day.

From 1868 to 1970, Memorial Day was observed on May 30. It was first called Decoration Day, and was established after the Civil War as a day for families and loved ones to decorate troops’ graves and remember them. It was declared an official holiday (as Memorial Day) in 1971, Military.com shared.

Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day, according to History.com. It first began 10 years after the Civil War. In 1966, the federal government officially declared Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day. In Waterloo, starting in 1866, Memorial Day was celebrated as a community-wide event where businesses were closed for the day and soldiers’ graves were decorated to remember them. It was called Decoration Day and at first it was on May 30, 1866, because no battles had their anniversary on that date. Southern states honored those lost on a separate day until after World War I, History.com shared. For a long time, Memorial Day was observed on May 30, until 1968 when Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This was designed to allow Memorial Day to end a three-day weekend for federal employees. It was officially recognized as a federal holiday in 1971.

Flags Fly Full Staff on Veterans Day & Half Staff on Memorial Day

Both Memorial Day and Veterans Day reflect upon the heroism of those who have served in the military. But Memorial Day remembers those who died while in military service. Both holidays may be observed with parades, ceremonies, and other celebrations. But Memorial Day is typically more somber, remembering those who have fallen and gave the ultimate sacrifice to keep us free.

That’s why we fly flags at half staff nationally from sunrise until noon on Memorial Day. On Veterans Day, by contrast, flags are to be flown at full staff. Virginia.gov noted: “On Memorial Day the flag should be flown at half-staff from sunrise until noon only, then raised briskly to the top of the staff until sunset, in honor of the nation’s battle heroes.”

Gettysburg Flag Works noted about Veterans Day: “This is a day to honor our nation’s veterans. It is not a day of mourning, but a day of celebration and honor. Therefore, it is not a day of half-staff. Citizens are encouraged to fly POW/MIA flags and flags of the military branches on this day to show support to our Veterans.”

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