Originally, Veterans Day was called “Armistice Day,” and the date was chosen to commemorate the signing of the armistice with Germany that ended hostilities during World War I.
The armistice, signed on November 11th, 1918, did not officially end that war, however. That came on June 28th, 1919, with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. On the other hand, since the U.S. never signed the Treaty of Versailles like the other Allies, one could say that for the U.S. at least, the November 11th armistice really did end the war.
At first, the focus of Armistice Day was on the veterans of World War I, though it was always meant to honor all veterans of foreign wars, who risked their lives on the battle field to secure the freedoms of all Americans. Over time, with the passing away of the World War I generation and the coming of new conflicts during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, the focus on the 1918 Armistice was lost and the name of the holiday was changed. Additionally, today, Veterans Day is generally regarded as honoring all those who ever served in the U.S. Armed Force rather than only those who actually fought in a war.
In 1919, the first celebration of Armistice Day took place, with Britain and the Allied nations of World War I all observing the day. Business as usual was briefly interrupted at 11am, the time when the armistice was signed with Germany. There were also parades and patriotic gatherings, and red poppies were put on display in many British Commonwealth countries.
Another development took place in 1926, when Congress finally decided to declare that World War I was over. It was odd for this recognition of an existing reality to come seven years late, but without the U.S. agreeing to the Treaty of Versailles, there had been no official end to the war. Congress also made November 11th a day of prayer and thanksgiving and expressed a desire that the U.S. flag be on display during this day and that special ceremonies be held.
Finally, in 1938, Armistice Day became a permanent, official public holiday. Eerily enough, the holiday designed to honor World War I veterans became official only a few years before World War II arrived. The next stage in the history of Veterans Day came in 1954, when it received its present name. Congress made the change when pressed to do so by various private Veteran’s organizations.
A debacle involving Veterans Day came in 1971, when Congress changed the date from November 11th to the fourth Monday in October. This led to chaos because many states refused to recognize the change. Some would be celebrating in November while others did so in October, and the resistance to the date change never broke down. Finally, the date was changed back to November 11th beginning in 1978.
Another interesting Veterans Day “conflict” involves a matter of grammar and spelling. Today, many people spell the holiday as “Veterans' Day,” but the official government-approved spelling is “Veterans Day”. The explanation given is that the adjectival spelling instead of the possessive-case spelling shows that the holiday is about honoring veterans rather than a day that belongs to them.
Many observe Veterans Day by simply flying the U.S. flag at their house, having a picnic or cook out with friends and family, and watching war movies or other patriotic programming on TV. Many also donate to veterans' causes and show appreciation to veterans they meet or are already acquainted with, and some veterans will don their military uniforms on this day, making themselves “easy to spot.”
Many people confuse Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Memorial Day is a day for remembering and honoring military personnel who died in the service of their country, particularly those who died in battle or as a result of wounds sustained in battle. While those who died are also remembered, Veterans Day is the day set aside to thank and honor ALL those who served honorably in the military — in wartime or peacetime. 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.
Four ideas on what to do in the U.S. on Veterans Day are:
Attend, or at least watch on television, the Veterans Day commemoration at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, VA. You can watch the wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. You may also wish to respectfully walk through the cemetery, where over 40,000 veterans and their families are buried.
Watch America's Parade, originally “the Veterans Day Parade,” in New York City. This is the largest Veterans Day parade in the country, bringing in around 25,000 attendees each year. It is held in Manhattan and has been running since 1919. There are also some other large parades to attend, including the biggest one west of the Mississippi River in Albany, Oregon, and there are many smaller parades as well.
Tour the memorials and monuments in Washington, D.C., that are related in some way to veterans. There are too many to list, but look for the DC War Memorial, which honors local World War I veterans, the National World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Spend the day, or part of it, volunteering at a local VA hospital or even just chatting with veterans who are there as patients. Many VAs will have special lunches on Veterans Day for the veterans, and they welcome volunteers to help prepare the meal.
Veterans Day is an important time to remember those who risked their lives to defend the freedom of others, and you will find there are many festive and patriotic activities to take part.