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The federal holidays of Memorial Day and Veterans Day are both designed to celebrate members of the U.S. military, but there are a few key differences. Memorial Day, which took shape after the Civil War, is considered a day to honor those who were killed in or as a result of participating in battle. Veterans Day, which materialized at the end of World War I, is a day to honor all service men and women, but especially those who remain with us to share their experiences.
Memorial Day began as “Decoration Day,” a designated time to decorate the gravestones of many of the roughly 620,000 people killed in the Civil War.
It is unclear when and where this act of commemoration first took place: around 25 communities have been tied to the origin of Memorial Day, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, with one such event reportedly held as far back as October 1864 in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania.
New York became the first state to designate Decoration Day a legal holiday in 1873, and by 1890, every other former Union state had followed suit. By the conclusion of World War I, the focus shifted from honoring those killed on Civil War battlefields to all men and women who had died while fighting for the United States. In the years that followed, the holiday became more widely known as Memorial Day.
In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Uniform Holiday Bill, which packaged several federal holidays into the tail end of three-day weekends with the hope of stimulating travel and commerce. As a result, Memorial Day has been celebrated on the fourth Monday of May since 1971. Unofficially, it marks the beginning of the summer season.
“We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.” — James Garfield
“Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude. America will never forget their sacrifices.” — Harry S. Truman
With schools and businesses closed for the holiday, many communities feature parades for service men and women as part of annual Memorial Day celebrations. Some people wear poppies as a symbol of the lives lost in service.
National commemoration of the holiday at Arlington National Cemetery reflects the holiday’s earliest tradition: gravestones of the interred are decorated with American flags, while a wreath is placed at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider. Per the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, flags are to be flown at half-staff from sunrise until 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 p.m. local time to reflect on those who died while serving the country.
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Although World War I formally ended with signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919, it was the cessation of fighting between the Allied forces and Germany at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918, that came to symbolize the end of the Great War.
President Woodrow Wilson subsequently proclaimed the first “Armistice Day” on November 11, 1919, an occasion to be commemorated with parades and the temporary suspension of businesses at 11 a.m. By that time, the governors of six states had already declared the day a legal holiday.
Congress formally recognized the annual November 11 observance in 1926, and in 1938, Armistice Day became a legal U.S. holiday, dedicated to the promise of world peace.
Toward the end of the following decade, however, public sentiment toward the celebration of peace was shifting toward a recognition of the sacrifices made by the 16-plus million Americans who had participated in World War II. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the first official “National Veterans Day” event took place in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1947.
The Uniform Holiday Bill of 1968 moved Veterans Day from November 11 to the fourth Monday in October. However, the change was met with resistance by traditionalists who considered the date to be inseparable from the rites of observance. Following congressional hearings to discuss the issue, President Gerald Ford in 1975 reinstated the holiday’s original date of November 11, effective 1978.
“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 the nations…” — Woodrow Wilson
“Veterans know better than anyone else the price of freedom, for they’ve suffered the scars of war. We can offer them no better tribute than to protect what they have won for us.” — Ronald Reagan
“The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” — Douglas MacArthur
READ MORE: 15 Quotes Honoring US Veterans
As with Memorial Day, Veterans Day is a day marked by parades and other events to thank the contributions of service men and women, though its later date on the calendar often limits the participation in outdoor activities.
The official ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery also sports some similarities to the one held earlier in the year for Memorial Day. Commencing at 11 a.m. sharp, the event includes a wreath laying at the Tomb of the Unknowns, before continuing inside the Memorial Amphitheater with featured speakers and the presentation of colors.