Veterans Day vs Memorial Day: What’s the difference?

President Biden participates in a wreath-laying ceremony and delivers remarks to commemorate Veterans Day

Even though Veterans Day and Memorial Day have a six-month gap, the two federal holidays are sometimes confused for one another.

Both days honor service members and military families, but there’s a distinct difference between these annual observances. 

Veterans Day

Troops march during a full honors procession honoring the centennial anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021 at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington is shown in the distance. 
(Sarah Silbiger/Pool via AP)

Unlike Memorial Day, Veterans Day is celebrated the same day each year – Nov. 11. 

The American holiday was previously known as Armistice Day, which Congress established in 1938 to honor the active and retired soldiers who fought in World War I. The chosen date coincided with the end of World War I, which took place on Nov. 11, 1918.

Sixteen years later, veterans groups advocated for the holiday’s name to include all those who had served in the military. The 83rd Congress honored this request and replaced the word “Armistice” with the word “Veterans” when they convened in June 1954. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the H.R. 7786 bill four months after that and delivered an inaugural Veterans Day Proclamation.

The Uniforms Holiday Bill signed in 1968 tried to move Veterans Day and three other federal holidays to a Monday, so federal workers could have a three-day weekend, but the move was an unpopular one and President Gerald R. Ford signed a law that restored Veterans Day to its original date in 1975.

Veterans Day is celebrated to this day with parades, military events, special retail promotions for service members and civilians thanking military personnel for their service.


Memorial Day

Memorial Day is celebrated on the last Monday each May. The federal holiday was once known as Decoration Day.

Memorial Day is a rolling federal holiday that’s celebrated on the fourth Monday of each May. 

While the holiday was established through that same Uniforms Holiday Bill in 1968, its origins stem as far back as the Civil War. In the 1860s, American civilians began to visit and decorate the gravesites of Union and Confederate soldiers. The springtime act of remembrance was eventually coined Decoration Day.

In 1868, the Grand Army of the Republic proclaimed Decoration Day to be a national holiday that should be observed on May 30, which fell in line with the blooming of most flowers. Congress officially recognized Decoration Day as a federal holiday in 1938.

The holiday got a name change in 1966 when President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed the city of Waterloo, N.Y. as the birthplace of Memorial Day. Five years later, the holiday moved to the last Monday in May through the Uniforms Holiday Bill.

Memorial Day is still celebrated with civilian, state-run and federal decoration initiatives where flowers and American flags are planted on gravesites for veterans who lost their lives in the line of duty. Parades and military events are also held to commemorate these fallen soldiers.

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