Memorial Day and Veterans Day are perhaps two of the most confused holidays on the U.S. civic calendar.Memorial Day memorializes military personnel who have died in service to the country. It is a solemn holiday, but is also celebrated in an unofficial way as the start of summer. It’s fine to grill or head out for a holiday weekend, but also flying the American flag, paying respects at a cemetery or service are ways to recognize the true nature of the holiday. The holiday goes back to the Civil War and was called Decoration Day.
The holiday is not for recognizing veterans. That is Veterans Day, typically observed on Nov. 11 each year. Veterans Day dates back to Armistice Day after World War I.
Of course, veterans and their families feel Memorial Day more deeply than most people and might be hurt seeing the holiday’s solemn meaning marginalized or forgotten. Treating Memorial Day as though it is Veterans Day can do that.
So, what is a good way to recognize a veteran on Memorial Day and show that you know the difference? Avoid thanking them for their service, which can sound trite or be painful for a host of reasons. “Happy Memorial Day” will sound contradictory. Depending on how well you know a person and how service and sacrifice might have touched them, you might try, “I hope you have a good Memorial Day.”
There is more about this distinction and military service in the Michigan State School of Journalism guide “100 Questions and Answers About Veterans” A Guide for Civilians.” It is available from Amazon or the Front Edge Publishing bookstore.