More Than Just Fireworks: Celebrating 6 National Days


Monday was Australia Day. In India, it was Republic Day. While both are national holidays, the reasons for their celebration couldn't be more different. So how does a country decide which is the day for fireworks, parades, marching bagpipers, and the odd display of nuclear-capable missiles? And why? There are more than 190 countries in the world. We decided to explore the national days of six of them.

1. Australia Day "“ January 26

Like the 13 colonies that formed the United States, the British colonies that were settled on the Australian continent after 1788 didn't originally see themselves as parts of a larger country. But unlike the American colonies and a host of other one-time British possessions, Australia didn't struggle for its independence. Perhaps the absence of that struggle is one reason it took more than 200 years for all the continent's states and territories to agree to celebrate Australia Day together as a public holiday each Jan. 26th.

It was on Jan. 26, 1788, that the Union Jack was first raised in Sydney Cove, as a fleet of 11 convict ships were anchored to begin British colonization of the territory they called New South Wales "“ the eastern half of the continent. By the early 19th century, those convicts and their descendants had begun to celebrate the foundation of Sydney and New South Wales with annual anniversary dinners.

It wasn't until 1818 that the continent was given the name Australia. In 1888, representatives of the five other Australian colonies traveled to Sydney to celebrate the centennial of the colony's founding.

In 1901, the Australian colonies joined as a federation within the British Empire, and there was some jostling over what the national day would be. In Victoria, in southeast Australia and home to the city of Melbourne, an organization called the Australian Natives' Association "“ referring not to the aboriginal peoples of the continent, but to the descendants of the original colonists "“ worked to promote Jan. 26 as the country's national day.

In 1931, Victoria adopted the date as Australia Day, while other states called it Foundation Day. In New South Wales, where the story began, Jan. 26 was Anniversary Day. Still, by 1935, the timing of the celebrations was synchronized. And by 1994 the national celebration of Australia Day was established. The focus of the day was shifted from Sydney, where the nation's story began, to Canberra, the national capital.

2. India: Republic Day "“ January 26

This year the elephants won't be marching in New Delhi. The jewel-laden pachyderms are a beloved part of the Republic Day parade "“ even carrying children who are the recipients of bravery awards. But the defense ministry decided to take the elephants off the invite list after pressure from animal rights activists and because the animals have a tendency of "going slightly berserk," according to a spokesman.

The national day of India, home to one of the world's oldest civilizations, celebrates cutting its last colonial ties on Jan. 26, 1950, after more than a century of British rule. India achieved independence from Britain on Aug. 15, 1947 (marked on calendars as the more minor Independence Day). But it wasn't until three years later that Indians ratified their constitution and inaugurated their first president, replacing Britain's King George VI as head of state.

Jan. 26 already was a significant date in the movement for Indian independence. On that day in 1930, the Indian National Congress symbolically declared independence from Britain. So 20 years later, Jan. 26 was a ready-made date to complete in reality what had begun symbolically.

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Celebrations also include a parade of floats from the various Indian states, folk dancing competitions and displays of Malkhamb, an ancient form of gymnastics involving balancing on a pole.

3. Guyana: Republic Day/Mashramani -- February 23

A South American country that looks to the Caribbean. A diverse population that is 50 percent East Indian, 36 percent black, and 7 percent Amerindian (what Americans call Native American). Guyana uses its national day to build ethnic unity.

Guyana became independent from Great Britain in 1966, but retained nominal ties to the crown. It severed those ties on Feb. 23, 1970, and declared itself a "cooperative republic."

The creators of Guyana's Republic Day looked to Trinidad's Carnival for inspiration, but to give it a local identity they gave it a new name. They settled on Mashramani, popularly called Mash. It's derived from an Arawak (Amerindian) word meaning "celebration after a successful cooperative effort."

In the capital, Georgetown, Mash activities include a Calypso competition, a parade of costumed participants, floats and "towering stacks of speakers that line the streets," according to Guyana by Kirk Smock. There is also an early-morning ceremony, "hoisting the Golden Arrowhead," which refers to Guyana's flag.

Mash has its corporate cheerleaders, and the theme of this year's celebration seems to have been written in Chamber of Commerce boosterese: "One Dream, One Celebration, One Design in 2009."

4. Zimbabwe: Independence Day "“ April 18

No country came out of the colonial period with more promise than Zimbabwe, but that promise has never been realized. The country became independent of white minority rule and British colonialism on April 18, 1980. Ever since, it's been impossible for the southern African nation to win independence from President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's first and only leader, who took a relatively prosperous country with a bright future and has presided over its utter collapse.

Independence Day is celebrated with parades, dancing and singing, political rallies, and fireworks.

At the first Independence Day celebration in 1980, reggae star Bob Marley performed his song "Zimbabwe," as Mugabe and Britain's Prince Charles watched. The performance was interrupted when tear gas began blowing through the stadium where the celebration was being held, as police fought Zimbabweans who had not been invited to the concert, but were trying to enter the stadium.

By 1982, Mugabe was rubbing out his opponents and rigging elections, tactics he continued using through last March's polling, which the opposition won. Nearly a year later, though, after a recount, a run-off and a series of power-sharing negotiations leading to a series of power-sharing compromises, Mugabe is still very much in charge.

Official mismanagement and corruption have led to economic collapse and serious food shortages in Zimbabwe. Schools and hospitals are closed, and a cholera epidemic attests to the breakdown of basic infrastructure. Inflation rages at 321 million percent "“ last year the government issued a 100-billion-Zimbabwe dollar bill. Last week, a 100-trillion-dollar note was introduced.

5. Portugal Day "“ June 10

Portugal has a number of historical dates that could easily qualify as its national day. In picking Dia de Camões, de Portugal e das Comunidades Portuguesas ("Day of Camões, Portugal, and the Portuguese Communities"), the country has chosen to commemorate the death in 1580 of its national poet, Luis de Camões. Camões wrote the epic poem Os Lusíadas (1572), whose central theme is the discovery of the sea route to India by Vasco da Gama.

In 1580, the year Camões died, Portugal came under the control of Spain. In 1640, Portugal regained its independence, which is celebrated each Dec. 1 as Restoration Day.

Oct. 1 is known Republic Day. It marks the overthrow of the Portuguese monarchy in 1910, and the establishment of republican government.

Republican government didn't necessarily mean democratic government. It was during the long dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar (1932-1968) that June 10 became Portugal's national holiday and the long-dead poet entered the picture. In fascist style, the dictatorship used Camões as a symbol of the Portuguese race, and in 1944 Salazar referred to June 10 as Dia da Raça "“ the "Day of the Portuguese Race."

The dictatorship outlasted Salazar and was finally overthrown in 1974. (April 25 is celebrated as Liberation Day.) Camões then became the centerpiece of the June 10 celebration, which was later broadened to include Portugal itself and the numerous Portuguese communities worldwide.

One hotbed of June 10 festivities is Rhode Island. That small state has the highest percentage of Portuguese-Americans in the United States "“ about 10 percent of the state's population is of Portuguese heritage. In typical American holiday style, when June 10 falls during the week, the celebration is shifted to the weekend to encourage larger crowds. Farther north, a 2001 proclamation declared June 10 as Portugal Day in Canada.

6. Indonesia: Independence Day "“ August 17

World War II was over, although the vanquished Japanese were still nominally in charge, when Indonesian nationalist leader Sukarno read a proclamation of independence on Aug. 17, 1945.

The Dutch, who had ruled what was called the Dutch East Indies for 300 years, were not ready to lose their colony again, after being expelled by the Japanese. Over the next two years, the Dutch fought to suppress Indonesian independence.

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The concept of Indonesia as a nation-state was new. Even the name Indonesia was new. It was created from the Greek Indos meaning Indian and nesos for islands.

Among Independence Day activities are egg-and-spoon and sack races, and panjat pinang, in which a player climbs a greasy pole to get a prize "“ like a bike. Public buildings are dressed in red and white bunting, reflecting the two-stripe Indonesian flag.

In a 2005 visit to Indonesia on the eve of Independence Day, Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot said the Netherlands now recognized that Indonesian independence occurred on Aug. 17, 1945, when Sukarno read his proclamation.
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These are only thumbnail sketches and they just scratch the surface of these countries' rich history and culture. If you have intimate knowledge of one of these or other national days and how it is celebrated, please tell us more in the comments.

David Holzel has not visited any of these six countries (yet), but really likes the idea of holidays in honor of writers. You can read more of his writing at The Jewish Angle.