Commonwealth Day, replacing the former Empire Day, is the annual celebration of the Commonwealth of Nations, often held on the second Monday in March. It is marked by an Anglican service in Westminster Abbey, normally attended by Queen Elizabeth II as Head of the Commonwealth along with the Commonwealth Secretary-General and Commonwealth High Commissioners in London. The Queen delivers an address to the Commonwealth, which is broadcast throughout the world.
Commonwealth Day is a public holiday in some parts of the Commonwealth, but not presently in Britain.
After the death of Queen Victoria on 22 January 1901, her birthday, 24 May, was celebrated from 24 May 1902 as Empire Day, though not officially recognised as an annual event until 1916. It was instituted in the United Kingdom in 1905 by Lord Meath, and extended throughout the countries of the Commonwealth; Empire Day was a “symbol of that unity of feeling . . . to those ideals of freedom, justice, and tolerance for which the British Empire [stood] throughout the world”. Empire Day became a major event, involving, among other things, school parades and the BBC; in 1925, 90,000 people attended an Empire Day thanksgiving service held at Wembley Stadium as part of the British Empire Exhibition.
The idea of a day that would “remind children that they formed part of the British Empire, and that they might think with others in lands across the sea, what it meant to be sons and daughters of such a glorious Empire”; and which apprised them that “The strength of the Empire depended upon them, and they must never forget it” was conceived earlier, in 1897. In 1898, Canadian Clementina Trenholme introduced an Empire Day to Ontario schools, on the last school day before 24 May, Queen Victoria’s birthday. Empire Day or Victoria Day was celebrated in the Cape Colony before the Second Boer War and thereafter throughout the Union of South Africa.
The British Empire League was instrumental in promoting Empire Day as a patriotic holiday. Empire Day traversed class boundaries, and after World War I it retained “hegemonic potency by amalgamating the emerging traditions of sombre commemoration into the repertoire of imperial festivity”.
Harold Macmillan announced in Parliament the renaming of Empire Day as Commonwealth Day.
The Commonwealth and Britain have a shared history, cultural links, common legal systems and business practices. Following a 1973 proposal by the Royal Commonwealth Society, the Commonwealth Secretariat selected the second Monday in March as the date on which Commonwealth Day is observed throughout all countries of the Commonwealth.
Commonwealth Day is not a statutory holiday; rather it is a day of observance by approximately one billion people of their common bonds and the contribution of the Commonwealth of Nations to the creation of a harmonious global environment.
The Union Flag is flown from UK public buildings
on the second Monday in March to mark Commonwealth Day. In addition, the Scottish Parliament Building flies the Commonwealth flag. The Queen and other members of the Royal family attend a special service at Westminster Abbey. A wreath is laid at the Commonwealth Memorial Gates in London to remember the sacrifices of Commonwealth soldiers by the Commonwealth Secretary General. A number of other events, such as the Commonwealth Africa Summit, also take place around the United Kingdom.
Although Commonwealth Day is not observed as a public holiday in Australia and many other places, several regional public holidays coincide with this day: Canberra Day in the Australian Capital Territory, Labour Day in Victoria, Adelaide Cup Day in South Australia, and Eight-hour Day in Tasmania. In 2006 Queen Elizabeth II delivered her Commonwealth Day address from St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia; this formed part of the lead-up to the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.
Where two flagpoles are available, the Royal Union Flag – or Union Jack – is flown along with the Canadian national flag from sunrise to sunset at federal buildings, airports, military bases, and other establishments within Canada in order to mark Commonwealth day. The 1964 parliamentary resolutions creating the Maple Leaf flag simultaneously retained the Royal Union Flag as an official symbol of Canada’s membership in the Commonwealth, and allegiance to the Crown.
The original Empire Day date in May continues to be observed in Canada as Victoria Day.
Commonwealth Day is a public holiday in Gibraltar.
*Other Commonwealth countries*
In Belize and The Bahamas, among other places, Commonwealth Day is marked officially in schools with special programmes and assemblies involving flag-raising ceremonies; the Queen’s Commonwealth Day message is often read at such events. In Belize, Commonwealth Day is still celebrated on 24 May.
Before 1997, Commonwealth Day was a school holiday in Hong Kong.