Commonwealth Day

"Empire Day" redirects here. For the CAM ship, see MV Empire Day.
Commonwealth Day
Observed by Commonwealth of Nations
Celebrations Multi-faith service in Westminster Abbey
Date Second Monday in March
2015 date March 9  (2015-03-09)
2016 date March 14  (2016-03-14)
2017 date March 13  (2017-03-13)
2018 date March 12  (2018-03-12)
Frequency annual
Related to Commonwealth Games (every four years)

Commonwealth Day is the annual celebration of the Commonwealth of Nations held on the second Monday in March, and marked by a multi-faith service in Westminster Abbey, normally attended by Queen Elizabeth II as Head of the Commonwealth, with the Commonwealth Secretary-General and Commonwealth High Commissioners in London. The Queen delivers an address to the Commonwealth, broadcast throughout the world.[1]

In the year before the quadrennial Commonwealth Games, the Queen starts the Queen's Baton Relay on Commonwealth Day at Buckingham Palace, handing the baton to the first relay runner to start a journey that will end at the Opening Ceremony of the upcoming Games.

While it has a certain official status, Commonwealth Day is not a public holiday in most Commonwealth countries, and there is little public awareness of it.


Commonwealth Day 2009. Flags of members and the Commonwealth Flag are flown outside and on top of Westminster Abbey respectively.

Clementina Trenholme introduced Empire Day in Canadian schools, first in Dundas, Ontario in 1898, on the last school day before 24 May, Queen Victoria's birthday. It was celebrated more widely throughout Canada each year. A typical Empire Day in Canadian schools occupied the entire day and included inspirational speeches by trustees and songs such as "The Maple Leaf Forever" and "Just Before the Battle".[2]

Empire Day was promoted to be 24 May (prior to 1901 celebrated as the Queen's Birthday) by the League of the Empire[3] and instituted in the United Kingdom in 1904 by Lord Meath, and extended throughout the countries of the Commonwealth. This day was celebrated by lighting fireworks in back gardens or attending community bonfires. It gave the King's people a chance to show their pride in being part of the British Empire.

The Queen's Birthday was celebrated in the Cape Colony before the Boer War and thereafter throughout the Union of South Africa. General Jan Smuts was born on the Queen's Birthday (24 May) in 1870.

In 1958 Empire Day was renamed Commonwealth Day, in accordance with the new post-colonial relationship between the nations of the former empire.

The National Council in Canada of the Royal Commonwealth Society expressed in a 1973 letter to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau that Commonwealth Day should be observed on the same day throughout all countries of the Commonwealth. They asked that this notion be included on the agenda of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to be held in Ottawa that year. The item eventually appeared on the agenda of the 1975 meeting, and it was agreed that the Commonwealth Secretariat select a date, preferably one without previous historical connotations. At the meeting of officials in Canberra in 1976, the Canadian proposal of the second Monday in March was adopted.[4]


There is no uniform observance of the day, worldwide.


In 2006 Queen Elizabeth II delivered her Commonwealth Day address from St. Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, part of the lead-up to the Commonwealth Games that year in Melbourne. Although Commonwealth Day is not observed as a public holiday in Australia, 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 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".[5] 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.[5]

United Kingdom

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'.[6] In schools, morning lessons were devoted to "exercises calculated to remind (the children) of their mighty heritage".[7] 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.[8] 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.[9]

The Union Flag is flown from public buildings on the second Monday in March to mark Commonwealth Day. The Scottish Parliament Building also flies the Commonwealth flag from the fourth flagpole.

The Queen, and other members of the Royal family, attend a special service at Westminster Abbey.[10]


Commonwealth Day is commemorated as a public holiday in Gibraltar.[11]

Other Commonwealth countries

In member states of the Commonwealth, Commonwealth Day is celebrated on the second Monday in March. In 2009, it was celebrated on 9 March. In some countries, such as Belize and in the Bahamas, Commonwealth Day is marked officially in schools with special programmes and assemblies such as flag-raising ceremonies. The Queen's Commonwealth Day message is often read at these events. Before 1997, the Commonwealth Day was a school holiday for many primary and secondary schools in the crown colony of Hong Kong.

Although Commonwealth Day is not widely known, many Commonwealth countries do have at least one public holiday that celebrates the sovereign's birthday—the day which inspired Commonwealth Day.

In Australia, New Zealand, Gibraltar and some other countries, there is a Queen's Birthday holiday. In addition, the second Monday in March is Canberra Day in the Australian Capital Territory; this is an unrelated holiday on the same day as Commonwealth Day to celebrate the naming of the Australian capital city.

In Canada and some parts of Scotland, particularly in Edinburgh and Dundee, the Monday on or before 24 May is a public holiday known as Victoria Day.

Commonwealth Day Themes

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

See also


  1. Official British Royal Family website "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 15 March 2012. Retrieved 18 March 2012.
  2. Bailey, Thomas Melville (1991). Dictionary of Hamilton Biography. Vol. II (1876–1924). W. L. Griffin Ltd.
  3. "Topics of the Day". The Advertiser. XLVI, (14,227). South Australia. 24 May 1904. p. 4. Retrieved 21 May 2016 via National Library of Australia.
  4. Ministry of Canadian Heritage: Commonwealth Day Archived 28 December 2005 at the Wayback Machine.
  5. 1 2 "Canadian Heritage – National Flag Day – Giving Canada Its Own Voice". Retrieved 19 May 2013.
  6. Jim English. Empire Day in Britain, 1904–58. p. 248.
  7. Earl of Meath, ‘British youth and the empire’,n earl of Meath, Brabazon potpourri (London, 1928), p. 95
  8. Jim English. Empire Day in Britain, 1904–58. p. 268.
  9. Jim English. Empire Day in Britain, 1904–58. p. 274.
  10. Imogen Levy and Duck Soup (12 March 2012). "An Observance for Commonwealth Day 2012". Westminster Abbey. Retrieved 19 May 2013.
  11. "United Kingdom – Gibraltar". The Commonwealth Secretariat. Archived from the original on 6 March 2010. Retrieved 6 March 2010.
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