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How are Veterans Day and Memorial Day different? (+video)

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(Read caption) How Pennsylvania students honor US veterans
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Why does the United States have a holiday named Veterans Day and one named Memorial Day? Don’t they overlap a bit, with both celebrating the US armed forces and military service?

These are questions that Decoder gets quite a bit, since we’ve done pioneering work on the origins of American holidays. (See our classic work on the myth that is “Presidents’ Day,” here.)

The quick answer to the Veterans Day question is that no, it honors a different, larger group of people than does Memorial Day. Veterans Day is about taking time to recognize all US service personnel from all wars. Memorial Day is a day set aside to honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice and died in the service of their country.

The longer, background answer is that their origins are also very different.

Both grew organically out of other holidays that commemorated the end of wars. Veterans Day was originally Armistice Day and took place on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, which was when the armistice that ended World War I took effect. Memorial Day was originally Decoration Day, when survivors and loved ones decorated the graves of those who perished in the Civil War. It is in the spring because that is when flowers bloom and thus can be gathered and placed on resting sites in memoriam.

Since Monday is Veterans Day, we’ll go into its history in a bit more depth. Armistice Day was first celebrated in 1919 at the direction of President Wilson. The original idea was for a day observed with parades and public meetings and a time of silence at 11 a.m., the hour of day the armistice took effect, according to a Department of Veterans Affairs history of the holiday.

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