The not always consensual history of national holidays around the world

On the occasion of the French National Day, fireworks are fired on the Champ de Mars at the foot of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, July 14, 2022. © AP / Lewis Joly

Text by: Sabine Cessou Follow

6 mins

National holidays are celebrated throughout the world, in very small islands as well as large nations, except for one… The celebrations, which became widespread in the 20th century, are sometimes shunned, when they are not angry subjects.


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The small Republic of San Marino, in northern Italy, presents itself as the oldest there is.

It has existed since the year 301 and in 1941 chose the date of September 3 to better celebrate its centuries of existence.

Other countries also commemorate their even greater longevity.



, a holiday instituted in 1872, marks the founding of Japan, 660 years BC.

South Korea breaks this record with its



 The Day the Sky Opened 

"), celebrating the birth of the first Korean state in the year 2333 BC.

On the other side of the world, on the contrary, one of the most recent national holidays is none other than 

Freedom Day 

on April 27, which recalls that day in 1994 when the "miracle" happened in South Africa. .

Democracy came about without violence, during the ballot that brought Nelson Mandela to the presidency.

Most of the national festivities

around the world correspond to proclamations of republics, as well as liberations and independence obtained from the colonial empires in the 1960s and 1970s, not to mention the dissolution of the USSR in 1990. 

is a recent practice which dates back to the second half of the 19th century only,

recalls the historian

André Larané

in the review “Hérodote”.

The emergence of nationalisms in the 19th century led Europeans to adopt rituals of a religious essence, capable of strengthening civic ties, such as the national holiday, but also the national anthem and allegiance to the flag.

This phenomenon began in the States resulting from a revolution, in the United States, in Belgium, in France. 


Double or triple national holidays

The monarchies, for their part, mark the enthronement of their sovereign or their birthday, doubling the festivities, like Denmark, which celebrates the birthday of its queen and her Constitution.

The Belgian historian

Cédric Istasse

recalls that to the Belgian national holiday of July 21, which corresponds to the taking of the oath of King Leopold I in 1831, are added five community and regional holidays in Belgium – Walloon, Flemish, but also French-speaking , German-speaking and


entities, established since the 1970s.

offering them a glorious precedent. 


In Algeria, the independence gained in 1962 is celebrated on July 5, as well as the beginning of the war of independence in 1954, on November 1.

To which was added, on January 12, 2018, the Yennayer festival, the Berber New Year's Day.

Independence and the Republic are celebrated in India, to which is added a third national holiday, October 2: "Gandhi Jayanti", the birthday of the "

 father of the nation 

", a public holiday marked by prayers, the dissemination of messages of non-violence, the laying by crowds of garlands of flowers on the statues of Gandhi, without forgetting the publication of innumerable books.

No national holiday in the UK

In the notoriously eccentric UK, it stands out.

We can consider, according to the points of view, that it combines four national holidays – or on the contrary that it has none… apart from what serves as it for the moment, the birthday of the queen or of the King.

As its name suggests, the United Kingdom is made up of four nations.

To each his feast, therefore, which corresponds to a saint of the Christian calendar, and gives a good reason to make flow streams of beer: Saint-George for England, Saint-David for Wales, Saint-Andrew for Scotland and Saint Patrick's Day in Northern Ireland.

The pro-Brexit would have liked to make June 23 "the" national holiday.

The referendum of June 23, 2016 indeed marked the beginning of the exit of the United Kingdom from the European bosom.

Others favor the date of December 31, the day in 2020 that marked the official withdrawal from the European Union.

On this subject, the young British historian

Steven Bishop

recalls a saying of his elder Raphael Samuel, according to which “ 

memory is conditioned by history, changing color and form according to the urgencies of the moment 


In 2020, he expressed doubts about the chances of commemorating an event that had divided the nation so much.

If Europe thrives while the UK struggles on its own, January 31 could be a date to forget, or one to be the subject of anger, regret and

"I told you so"

Today, the hope of commemorating Brexit seems dashed, as its


no longer give rise to any reason for celebration.

Angry parties

Far from the popular balls of the French 14-July, a national holiday established by law in 1880, a good century after the storming of the Bastille, some countries simply sulk on the day when they are supposed to cultivate their sense of belonging to the nation.

This is the case of Germany, where the crowds refrain, on October 3, from any demonstration of joy to celebrate the reunification of the country after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Does the celebration of a strong state refer to bad memories of the Nazi era or to the causes of the partition of the country after the Second World War?

Germany, in any case, does not have to be asked to celebrate, but rather on other occasions, whether it is


(beer festival) in Bavaria or Gay Pride in Berlin.

In Australia, the date January 26 is proving to be a source of tension, and even demonstrations to demand that it be changed.

It is that the arrival of the first British colony, on January 26, 1788, is far from rejoicing everyone, a whole section of the memories remaining marked by the massacres then perpetrated.

Or does the real foundation of the nation belong instead to the Aboriginal people, who have been around for 40,000 years and consider January 26 to be “invasion day”?

The subject continues to be debated.

In Spain, the date of October 12 refers even more clearly to the colonial past.

It corresponds to the day in 1492 when Christopher Columbus landed at Guanahani, in the Bahamas, persuaded to set foot in India.

Chosen in 1913 and initially named “the Day of the Race”, it is meant to underline the historical link between Madrid and the Latin American Spanish-speaking countries.

Renamed "Hispanic Day" in 1958 by Franco, then "National Day of Spain" in 1987, this date is disputed.

Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, ​​in Catalonia, saw in 2015 " 

the celebration of the beginning of a genocide


As for the writer Eduardo Galeano, from Uruguay, he wrote these definitive lines on this subject: " 

In 1492, the natives discovered that they were Indians, that they lived in America, that they were naked, that sin existed, that they had to obey a king and queen from another world and a god from another heaven. 


To read also: Why do we party?


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