What's the Difference Between Memorial Day and Veterans Day?

Memorial Day, marked on the last Monday in May every year, falls on May 31 in 2021. The occasion is sometimes confused with Veterans Day, another federal holiday honoring members of the military.

USA.gov notes: "Some people get Memorial Day and Veterans Day confused. On Memorial Day, America honors those who died while serving in the military."

However "on Veterans Day, the country celebrates everyone who has served in the military," the federal government website continues.

Memorial Day honors and remembers "particularly those who died in battle or as a result of wounds sustained in battle," the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says.

Here we take a look at the meaning and history of the two federal holidays.

Memorial Day

Memorial Day was initially known as Decoration Day. It was observed by communities after the Civil War resulted in over 620,000 military deaths, which was around 2 percent of the total population at the time, according to the U.S. National Archives website.

"John A. Logan, the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of Republic, chose May 30, 1868, as a day to decorate the graves of Union troops across the nation.

"From this beginning, Memorial Day is now designated as an annual day of remembrance to honor all those who have died in service to the United States during peace and war," the website says.

Since 2000, a ''National Moment of Remembrance" was designated to take place at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day each year.

"Like President Grant in 1873, Presidents have continued to commemorate those who have died in service to the country by visiting Arlington National Cemetery and speaking to the nation," according to the U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO) website.

Veterans Day

Veterans Day—which is always observed on November 11 regardless of the day of the week on which it falls—celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans.

Formerly known as Armistice Day, Veterans Day was originally a day honoring the end of World War I, which officially took place on November 11, 1918. November 11 became a legal holiday in 1938, according to the GPO website.

"In 1954, at the urging of the veterans service organizations, the 83rd U.S. Congress amended the Act of 1938 by striking out the word 'Armistice' and inserting the word 'Veterans.' On June 1, 1954, November 11th became a day to honor American veterans of all wars," the website notes.

While those who died are also remembered, Veterans Day is designated "to thank and honor ALL those who served honorably in the military—in wartime or peacetime," the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs explains.

"In fact, Veterans Day is largely intended to thank LIVING veterans for their service, to acknowledge that their contributions to our national security are appreciated, and to underscore the fact that all those who served—not only those who died—have sacrificed and done their duty," the department says.

Graves at Virginia's Arlington National Cemetery.
Soldiers placing U.S. flags at graves in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia on May 27 ahead of Memorial Day. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images