What's the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day?

Every year around this time my Facebook feed fills with comments from veteran friends talking about how a civilian friend put their foot in their mouth by wishing them a Happy Memorial Day.

The sentiment is appreciated, but it's wrong--and it stems from the fact that many Americans who never served in the military actually don't know the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

Here's the background--but also, the difference in a single sentence: Memorial Day honors people who died in our nation's wars; Veterans Day honors all veterans who have ever served in our armed forces.

Veterans Day

Celebrated in November, Veterans Day is a federal holiday that is meant to honor everyone who has served in the United States military. It doesn't matter if the veteran served in wartime or saw combat. Anyone who has ever stood somberly, raised his or her right hand, and enlisted in any branch of the U.S. military (while swearing to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic") counts.

The holiday began as a commemoration of the armistice that ended World War I, which is why you'll see that many other nations also celebrate it at the same time--namely the United Kingdom, Canada, and other Commonwealth countries that fought on the Allied side in World War I.

While the U.S. government celebrates Veterans Day as a public holiday, it's treated a bit like a second-tier holiday by many private businesses and employers. In some businesses, employees work on Veterans Day in order to be able to take the Friday after Thanksgiving off.

Also: According to the U.S. government, it's spelled Veterans Day. No apostrophe.

Memorial Day

Celebrated on the last Monday of May, Memorial Day is more somber than Veterans Day: it's to remember of every person who gave his or her life in defense of the nation during its wars.

Memorial Day predates Veterans Day. It was first celebrated in 1868--called Decoration Day at the time--as a day to celebrate and remember Union soldiers who died during the Civil War. Some Southern states still celebrate the separate Confederate Memorial Day, which honored soldiers who fought for the South during the Civil War.

By the end of World War II, however, Decoration Day had unofficially been expanded to honor all those who gave their lives in any war. The name of the holiday was officially changed in 1967.

Memorial Day is also usually considered the unofficial beginning of summer. Personally, I think barbecues, beaches, and ball games are great ways to spend this day. There is no disrespect from celebrating American life: that is part of why so many veterans are willing to risk life and limb to defend our country.

But still, take a moment at least--if not the whole day--and think about why we celebrate. The reason we are all here is because men and women were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf.

(Author's note: This Memorial Day, like every year, I'll be thinking of two U.S. Army soldiers in particular, Lieutenant Todd Bryant and Captain Tim Moshier--best friends, West Point roommates, and patriots who each were killed in action in Iraq, two and a half years apart.)

Published on: May 26, 2017
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