Commonwealth Day

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Commonwealth Day
Commonwealth Day 2014 (13059084565).jpg
Flags of the Commonwealth flying in Horse Guards, London; Monday, 10 March 2014
Observed byCommonwealth of Nations
CelebrationsService in Westminster Abbey
DateSecond Monday in March
2020 dateMarch 9  (2020-03-09)
2021 dateMarch 8  (2021-03-08)
2022 dateMarch 14  (2022-03-14)
2023 dateMarch 13  (2023-03-13)
Related toCommonwealth Games (every four years)

Commonwealth Day (formerly Empire Day) is the annual celebration of the Commonwealth of Nations, since 1977 often held on the second Monday in March.[1] 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.[2] The Queen delivers a broadcast address to the Commonwealth.[3]

While it has a certain official status, Commonwealth Day is not a public holiday in most Commonwealth countries,[1] and there is little public awareness of it.[4] It is marked as a holiday in Gibraltar,[5][4] but not in March.[6]


King George VI delivering a radio broadcast to the British Empire on Empire Day 1939, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

The idea of a day that would "remind children that they formed part of the British Empire" was conceived in 1897.[7] In 1898, Canadian Clementina Trenholme introduced an Empire Day to Ontario schools, on the last school day before 24 May, Queen Victoria's birthday.[8] Empire Day or Victoria Day was celebrated in the Cape Colony before the Second Boer War and thereafter throughout the Union of South Africa.[9]

Empire Day was introduced in the UK in 1904 by Reginald Brabazon, the 7th Earl of Meath, 'to nurture a sense of collective identity and imperial responsibility among young empire citizens'.[10] In schools, morning lessons were devoted to "exercises calculated to remind (the children) of their mighty heritage".[11] The centrepiece of the day was an organised and ritualistic veneration of the Union flag. Then, schoolchildren were given the afternoon off, and further events were usually held in their local community. Empire Day became more of a sombre commemoration in the aftermath of World War I, and politically partisan as the Labour Party passed a resolution in 1926 to prevent the further celebration of Empire Day.[12]

After the death of Queen Victoria on 22 January 1901, her birthday, 24 May, was celebrated from 1902 as Empire Day, though not officially recognised as an annual event until 1916.[7][13][deprecated source?] In 1925, 90,000 people attended an Empire Day thanksgiving service held at Wembley Stadium as part of the British Empire Exhibition.[14] The British Empire League promoted Empire Day as a patriotic holiday.[15] Empire Day traversed class boundaries, and after the First World War, the jingoism was toned down in favour of sombre commemoration in the festival.[12]

"The Conservative party and other groups adopted Empire Day as a vehicle for anti-socialist propaganda, whilst the communist party exploited it as an opportunity to attack British imperialism. Other protests came from local Labour groups and pacifist dissenters. The overt politicization of Empire Day severely disrupted its hegemonic function and the political battles fought over the form and purpose of the celebrations made it difficult to uphold the notion that the festival was merely a benign tribute to a legitimate and natural state of affairs."[12]

After World War II, the event fell into rapid decline, and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan bowed to the inevitable on 18 December 1958, when he announced in Parliament that the name of Empire Day would be changed forthwith to Commonwealth Day.[12][16]

The Commonwealth and Britain have a shared history, cultural links, common legal systems and business practices.[17] 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.[18]


The Commonwealth flag flying on the Foreign Office building in London, on Commonwealth Day 2019

There is not a uniform observance of the day worldwide, and several countries use their own traditions to celebrate the holiday.[18]

United Kingdom[edit]

Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, speaking at Westminster Abbey on Commonwealth Day 2020

The Union Flag is flown from UK public buildings on the second Monday in March to mark Commonwealth Day.[19] In addition, the Scottish Parliament Building flies the Commonwealth flag.[20] The Queen and other members of the Royal family attend a special inter-denominational service at Westminster Abbey, followed by a reception hosted by the Commonwealth Secretary-General.[21] A wreath is laid at the Commonwealth Memorial Gates in London to remember the sacrifices of Commonwealth soldiers by the Commonwealth Secretary General.[22] A number of other events, such as the Commonwealth Africa Summit, also take place around the United Kingdom.[23]


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.[24] 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.[25]


In Canada, the only official recognition is a federal government stipulation that the Royal Union Flag be flown alongside Canada's flag at government installations nationwide, "where physical arrangements allow... Physical arrangements means the existence of at least two flag poles".[26] The 1964 parliamentary resolutions creating the Maple Leaf flag also retained the Union Flag as an official symbol of Canada's membership in the Commonwealth, and allegiance to the Crown.[26][27]

The original Empire Day (Fête de l'Empire) date in May continues to be observed in Canada as Victoria Day.


Commonwealth Day is a public holiday in Gibraltar.[5] As of 2021, it is celebrated in February instead of March.[6]

Other Commonwealth countries[edit]

In Belize and The Bahamas, Commonwealth Day is marked in schools with special programmes and assemblies involving flag-raising ceremonies; the Queen's Commonwealth Day message is often read at such events.[28] In Belize, Commonwealth Day is still celebrated on 24 May.[better source needed]

Before 1997, Commonwealth Day was a school holiday in Hong Kong.[4]

Commonwealth Day themes[edit]

Year Theme[29]
1995 Our Commonwealth Neighbourhood – Working Together for Tolerance and Understanding
1996 Our Working Partnership
1997 Talking to One Another
1998 Sport Brings Us Together
1999 Music
2000 Sharing Knowledge – The Communications Challenge
2001 A New Generation
2002 Diversity
2003 Partners in Development
2004 Building a Commonwealth of Freedom
2005 Education – Creating Opportunity, Realising Potential
2006 Health & Vitality
2007 Respecting Difference, Promoting Understanding
2008 The Environment, Our Future
2009 Commonwealth@60 – Serving a New Generation
2010 Science, Technology and Society
2011 Women as Agents of Change
2012 Connecting Cultures
2013 Opportunity through Enterprise
2014 Team Commonwealth
2015 A Young Commonwealth
2016 An Inclusive Commonwealth
2017 A Peace-building Commonwealth
2018 Towards A Common Future
2019 A Connected Commonwealth
2020 Delivering a Common Future
2021 Delivering a Common Future

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 2017. Archived from the original on 9 October 2017. Retrieved 17 August 2021.
  2. ^ "Commonwealth National Days". Westminster Abbey. 2017. Archived from the original on 9 October 2017. Retrieved 2 October 2017.
  3. ^ "Commonwealth Day". The Commonwealth of Nations. 2017. Archived from the original on 3 October 2017. Retrieved 17 August 2021.
  4. ^ a b c Fraser McAlpine (2015). "5 Things That Happened Because it is Commonwealth Day". BBC America. Archived from the original on 9 October 2017. Retrieved 9 October 2017.
  5. ^ a b Catherine Miller (13 March 2002). "The rocky road to Spain". BBC News. Archived from the original on 18 February 2006. Retrieved 9 October 2017.
  6. ^ a b "Gibraltar Public Holidays". Visit Gibraltar.
  7. ^ a b "Empire Day". Historic UK. 2006. Archived from the original on 10 October 2017. Retrieved 2 October 2017.
  8. ^ Wendy Halliday (7 March 2015). "Commonwealth Day unites people around the world". Times Colonist. Archived from the original on 9 October 2017. Retrieved 2 October 2017.
  9. ^ Bickford-Smith, Vivian (2016). The Emergence of the South African Metropolis: Cities and Identities in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 70. ISBN 978-1107002937.
  10. ^ Jim English. Empire Day in Britain, 1904–58. p. 248.
  11. ^ Earl of Meath, ‘British youth and the empire’,n earl of Meath, Brabazon potpourri (London, 1928), p. 95
  12. ^ a b c d Jim English (24 February 2006). "EMPIRE DAY IN BRITAIN, 1904–1958". The Historical Journal. Cambridge University Press. 49 (1). Archived from the original on 10 October 2017. Retrieved 17 August 2021.
  13. ^ "Empire Day". Hansard. 1916. Archived from the original on 9 October 2017. Retrieved 3 October 2017.
  14. ^ Pitchford, Mark (2011). The Conservative Party and the Extreme Right 1945–1975. Vancouver: Manchester University Press. p. 82. ISBN 978-0719083631.
  15. ^ Noel Malcolm (12 December 2004). "Empire? What empire?". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 4 October 2017. Retrieved 2 October 2017.
  16. ^ Blair, Alasdair (2014). Britain and the World since 1945. London: Routledge. p. 11. ISBN 978-1408248294.
    - The Earl of HomeSecretary of State for Commonwealth Relations (18 December 1958). "Commonwealth Day". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). United Kingdom: House of Commons. col. 467.
  17. ^ Tamara Chabe (14 March 2016). "Brexit will allow Britain to embrace the Commonwealth". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 7 September 2017. Retrieved 9 October 2017.
  18. ^ a b "Commonwealth Day". Government of Canada. 2016. Archived from the original on 9 October 2017. Retrieved 9 October 2017.
  19. ^ "Commonwealth:Written question – 224329". UK Parliament. 2015. Archived from the original on 9 October 2017. Retrieved 9 October 2017.
  20. ^ "Flag flying policy". Scottish parliament. n.d. Archived from the original on 9 October 2017. Retrieved 9 October 2017.
  21. ^ Commonwealth Day Archived 11 March 2015 at the Wayback Machine
    - Harry Mount (13 March 2013). "Queen Elizabeth II: the most present monarch in a thousand years". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 9 October 2017. Retrieved 9 October 2017.
  22. ^ "Memorial Gates falls silent to remember Commonwealth soldiers". The Commonwealth. 11 March 2019. Retrieved 23 October 2019.
    - "The valiant troops of the world wars celebrated this Commonwealth Day". Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, UK. 9 March 2015. Retrieved 23 October 2019.
  23. ^ Henry Ridgwell (14 March 2018). "Commonwealth Africa Summit Focuses on Youth, Gender Equality". Voice of America. Retrieved 23 October 2019.
    - "Flag raised in Grantham to celebrate Commonwealth Day". Grantham Journal. 11 March 2019. Retrieved 23 October 2019.
  24. ^ Tony Brennan (20 March 2015). "The Commonwealth: Shared past, bright future". Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. Archived from the original on 10 October 2017. Retrieved 9 October 2017.
  25. ^ "Queen cheered at Australia celebration". The Yorkshire Post. 13 March 2006. Archived from the original on 9 October 2017. Retrieved 9 October 2017.
  26. ^ a b "Canadian Heritage – National Flag Day – Giving Canada Its Own Voice". Retrieved 19 May 2013.
  27. ^ Igartua, José E. (2007). The Other Quiet Revolution: National Identities in English Canada, 1945–71. Vancouver: UBC Press. p. 181. ISBN 978-0774810913.
  28. ^ Imogen Groome (13 March 2017). "It's Commonwealth Day: which countries are in the Commonwealth and what is the flag?". Metro. Archived from the original on 9 October 2017. Retrieved 9 October 2017.
  29. ^ "Commonwealth theme for the year". The Commonwealth. 2021. Retrieved 17 August 2021.

External links[edit]