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.
History of Memorial Day
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.
READ MORE: One of the Earliest Memorial Day Ceremonies Was Held by Freed African Americans
Famous Memorial Day Quotes
“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
Memorial Day Traditions
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.
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