The federal holidays, Memorial Day and Veterans Day, are both meant to celebrate members of the US military, but there are a few key differences. Memorial Day, which took shape after the Civil War, is considered a day honoring those killed in or as a result of taking part in combat. Established at the end of World War I, Veterans Day is a day honoring all servicewomen and men, but especially those who stay with us to share their experiences.
History of Memorial Day
Memorial Day began as “Decoration Day,” a designated time to decorate the headstones of many of the approximately 620,000 people killed in the Civil War.
It is unclear when and where this act of commemoration first took place: around 25 communities are associated with the origin of Memorial Day, according to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, with one such event reportedly taking place as early as October 1864 in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania.
New York was the first state to make Decoration Day a public holiday in 1873, and by 1890 all other former Union states followed suit. At the end of World War I, the focus shifted from honoring those who died on the battlefields of the Civil War to all the men and women who died fighting for the United States. In the years that followed, the holiday became commonly known as Memorial Day.
In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Uniform Holiday Bill, which packed several federal holidays into the ends of three-day weekends in hopes of boosting travel and commerce. That is why Memorial Day has been celebrated on the fourth Monday in May since 1971. Unofficially, it marks the beginning of the summer season.
READ MORE: One of the earliest Memorial Day ceremonies was held by freed African Americans
Famous memorial day quotes
“We don’t know a single promise these men made, a promise they made, a word they spoke; but we know that they summed up and perfected the highest virtues of men and citizens by one supreme act. For love of their country they accepted death, thus removing all doubt and immortalizing their patriotism and virtue.” —James Garfield
“Our debt to the heroic men and brave women who serve our country can never be repaid. They deserve our undying gratitude. America will never forget her sacrifices.” – Harry S. Truman
Traditions on Memorial Day
With schools and businesses closed for the holiday, many communities hold military parades as part of the annual Memorial Day celebrations. Some people wear poppies as a symbol of life lost in service.
The national commemoration of the holiday at Arlington National Cemetery reflects the earliest tradition of the holiday: Headstones of those buried are decorated with American flags, while a wreath is laid at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, flags must be flown at half-staff from sunrise to noon, and then raised to the top of the staff until sunset.
In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed the National Moment of Remembrance Act, which encourages Americans to pause their Memorial Day activities at 3:00 p.m. local time to remember those who died in service to the country.
READ MORE: The origins of the poppy as a WWI memorial symbol
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History of Veterans Day
Although World War I officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919, it was the cessation of fighting between the Allies and Germany at 11 am on November 11, 1918 that symbolized the end of World War I.
President Woodrow Wilson then proclaimed the first “Armistice Day” on November 11, 1919, an occasion to be commemorated with parades and a temporary cessation of business at 11:00 am. At that time, the governors of six states had already declared this day a public holiday.
Congress officially recognized the annual observance of November 11 in 1926, and in 1938 Armistice Day became a US public holiday dedicated to the promise of world peace.
By the end of the following decade, however, public sentiment shifted toward a celebration of peace toward a recognition of the sacrifices made by the more than 16 million Americans who fought in World War II. According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, the first official National Veterans Day event was held in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1947.
The 1968 Uniform Holiday Bill moved Veterans Day from November 11 to the fourth Monday of October. However, the change met with opposition from traditionalists, who saw the date as inseparable from the rites of observance. In 1975, after congressional hearings to discuss the issue, President Gerald Ford reinstated the holiday’s original date of November 11, effective in 1978.
Famous Veterans Day Quotes
“For us in America, Armistice Day reflections will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the service of the country and gratitude for victory, both for the cause from which it freed us and for also because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy for peace and justice in the councils of nations…” – Woodrow Wilson
“Veterans know better than anyone the price of freedom because they have suffered the scars of war. We can give them no better tribute than to protect what they have won for us.” – Ronald Reagan
“The soldier prays above all for peace, for it is he who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” – Douglas MacArthur
READ MORE: 15 Quotes Honoring US Veterans
Veterans Day traditions
Like Memorial Day, Veterans Day is a day marked by parades and other events to thank servicemen and soldiers for their contributions, although its later date in the calendar often limits participation in outdoor activities.
The official ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery also bears some similarities to the one held earlier in the year for Memorial Day. The event begins promptly at 11:00 am and will include a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns before continuing inside the Memorial Amphitheater with speakers and color displays.