Fireworks, flags and the Fourth of July

Today is a national holiday in the US, commemorating independence from Britain. Most countries have national days. But what's their purpose?

Today, the USA is celebrating. The Fourth of July is Independence Day, a huge national celebration of all things American. Expect fireworks, parades, barbecues, fairs, baseball games, family reunions, political speeches and apple pie, proverbially known as the nation's favourite dessert.

This explosion of patriotic fervour is really a kind of birthday party for the country. It was on this day in 1776 that America's 'Founding Fathers' issued the Declaration of Independence, splitting the American colonies away from the British Empire.

Their famous words are still regarded with almost religious respect by US citizens: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' Today's celebrations represent a national rededication to this founding creed, which remains at the heart of the 'American Dream'.

America is not the only country to celebrate its defining national moment. In France, for instance, it's all about Bastille Day on July 14th. Formally called La Fête Nationale (The National Celebration) it commemorates the storming of the Bastille on 14th July, 1789.

This fortress-prison was used to hold political prisoners whose writings upset the monarchy and therefore stood as a symbol of royal absolutism.

As it happened, at the time of the siege, there were only seven inmates, none of great political significance.

But its capture by the people remains a powerful symbol of the overthrow of the old order and the birth of the modern nation.

The reasons for national days vary a great deal and they are not always political. On October 12th, Spain celebrates the anniversary of Christopher Columbus's discovery of the Americas. In Ireland on March 17th they remember St Patrick, the saint credited with bringing Christianity to the country in the 5th century.

Out of date?

England doesn't have a national day. Remembrance Day on November 11th commemorates those who died in the two World Wars, but there's no apple pie or national holiday – just a two-minute silence.

Is this a loss? Some believe national days unify the people around a shared and inspiring moment of history. Others say they lock a country into ancient myths that no longer speak to the changing ethnic and social mix in each nation.

Australia's national day on 26th January marks the arrival of the British fleet in Sydney Cove in 1788. They call it Australia Day, but the indigenous Aborigines give it a different name: Invasion Day.

You Decide

  1. Should every country have a national day?
  2. Does a country's history matter?

Activities

  1. Come up with five things to celebrate about your country.
  2. As leader of your country, write a speech for your national day. What do you think it's important to say? How can you include everyone? Do you want to mention history? Or do you want to talk about today?

Some People Say...

“Patriotism is just a disguise for nationalism, racism and xenophobia.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Isn't apple pie English?
The first written evidence of apple pie dates to a 14th Century English recipe. English pilgrims probably brought apple seeds to the US so their national pudding isn't American at all. But when it comes to nations, myths are often more important than facts.
When is China's national day?
October 1st. It commemorates the day in 1949 when Chairman Mao founded the new communist state of the People's Republic of China. The day is followed by the 'Golden Week' when people are given time off to visit relatives and travel.
Are most national days about independence?
They are, although South Africa's 27th April celebrations remember the end ofapartheid and the country's first democratic election in 1994. Denmark and the UK are among the few nations who don't have a special day.

Word Watch

Christopher Columbus
A 15th century explorer from Genoa, who persuaded the Spanish monarchy to fund his search for China. He found America by mistake.
Myths
Stories rooted in some historical event that grow to embody a set of beliefs or ideals. What actually happened becomes less important than what the event comes to symbolise. Historically, the storming of the Bastille was not very significant but symbolically it has became very important for the French people.
Indigenous
Original inhabitant of a country like the Indians in America.
Apartheid
A form of government that separates people by their colour or ethnicity. Before 1994 in South Africa, white rulers made 'blacks' and 'coloureds' 2nd class citizens and unable to vote.

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