It may not be easy for most people to admit, but certain national holidays often get a little muddled in their minds—namely, Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Clearly, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has seen and/or been asked about the confusion enough times that they've gone ahead and dedicated some space on their website to explaining the difference between these two similarly themed, but very different, holidays.
When is Memorial Day and when is Veterans Day?
Memorial Day and Veterans Day are held approximately six months apart: Veterans Day is celebrated every November 11, while Memorial Day takes place on the last Monday of May as part of a three-day weekend that's typically packed with parades and plenty of retail sales promotions. This year, that will be Monday, May 31, 2021. You probably realize both holidays are intended to acknowledge the contributions of those brave individuals who have served in the United States military, but you may not recall the important distinction between the two. So what's the difference?
Veterans Day used to be Armistice Day
Veterans Day was originally known as Armistice Day. It was first observed on November 11, 1919, the one-year anniversary of the end of World War I. Congress passed a resolution making it an annual observance in 1926. It became a national holiday in 1938. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower changed the name from Armistice Day to Veterans Day to recognize veterans of the two world wars. The intention is to celebrate all military veterans, living or dead, who have served the country, with an emphasis on thanking the people in our lives who have spent time in uniform for their service to this country.
Who does Memorial Day honor?
Memorial Day is also a celebration of military veterans, but the mood is more somber. The occasion is reserved for those who died while serving their country. The day was first observed in the wake of the Civil War, where local communities organized tributes around the gravesites of fallen soldiers. The observation was originally called Decoration Day because the graves were adorned with flowers.
It was originally held on May 30 because that date wasn't the anniversary for any battle in particular and all soldiers could be honored. (The date was recognized by northern states, with southern states choosing different days.) After World War I, the day shifted from remembering the fallen in the Civil War to those who had perished in all of America's conflicts. It gradually became known as Memorial Day and was declared a federal holiday and moved to the last Monday in May to organize a three-day weekend beginning in 1971.
The easiest way to think of the two holidays is to consider Veterans Day a time to shake the hand of a veteran who stood up for our freedoms. Memorial Day is a time to remember and honor those who are no longer around to receive your gratitude personally.
A version of this story ran in 2019; it has been updated for 2021.