Commonwealth Day
Flags of member states of the Commonwealth of Nations flying at Parliament Square in London on Commonwealth Day, 2009
Observed byCommonwealth of Nations
DateSecond Monday in March
2023 dateMarch 13  (2023-03-13)
2024 dateMarch 11  (2024-03-11)
2025 dateMarch 10  (2025-03-10)
2026 dateMarch 9  (2026-03-09)
Related toVictoria Day/Sovereign's Day[note 1]

Commonwealth Day is the annual celebration of the Commonwealth of Nations, held on the second Monday in March. While the date holds some official status in select member states of the Commonwealth, observances of the date are not uniform across the Commonwealth, and the date is not celebrated as a public holiday in most Commonwealth countries.[note 2]

The event traces its origins to Empire Day, an event initially conceived to celebrate the British Empire. It was originally observed on Queen Victoria's birthdate, May 24th, or the last weekday before it. In the latter half of the 20th century, the celebration's focus shifted towards emphasising the modern Commonwealth of Nations, with the event being renamed Commonwealth Day in 1958, and its date moved to the second Monday in March in 1977.

Commonwealth Day is typically marked by a Commonwealth Day message made by the Head of the Commonwealth, as well as additional statements from the Commonwealth Secretary-General. Inter-denominational observances are also held in cities across the Commonwealth, including one led by the Head of the Commonwealth at Westminster Abbey in London and attended by the Commonwealth Secretary-General.

Flag-raising ceremonies for the flag of the Commonwealth of Nations are also held in Commonwealth countries. The flags of Commonwealth member states are flown at select locations in the United Kingdom, while the Royal Union Flag is flown at federal installations in Canada.


The idea of observing one day each year as a public holiday throughout the British Empire was first suggested in 1894 and 1895 by Thomas Robinson, the Royal Colonial Institute's honorary secretary at Winnipeg in Canada. Taking up Robinson's suggestion, the Royal Colonial Institute's London council addressed a petition to the Queen Victoria in July 1894 declaring that, whereas other nations had annual days for national celebration, the British Empire had no such day, and proposing that the Queen's birthday should be set aside for the purpose. In a reply the British prime minister, Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, stated that it was a matter not for the government but for the community and pointed out that government departments already kept the Queen's birthday as a holiday.[1][2] Other early advocates for the adoption of an "Empire Day" as a patriotic holiday include the British Empire League.[3]

The idea to hold an "Empire Day" as a day that would "remind children that they formed part of the British Empire" gained support in the 1890s,[4] and on the initiative of Clementina Trenholme in 1898, was first introduced in Ontario schools on the last school day before 24 May, Queen Victoria's birthday.[1][2] By the end of the 19th century, Empire Day was also celebrated in Cape Colony before the Second Boer War and thereafter throughout the Union of South Africa.[1][2][5] Empire Day was introduced in the United Kingdom in 1904 by Reginald Brabazon, 12th Earl of Meath, 'to nurture a sense of collective identity and imperial responsibility among young empire citizens'.[6]

School guide for observances of Empire Day in the schools of Ontario from 1929.

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.[4][7][deprecated source?] In schools, morning lessons were devoted to "exercises calculated to remind (the children) of their mighty heritage".[8] The centrepiece of the day was an organised and ritualistic veneration of the Union flag. Schoolchildren were given the afternoon off, and further events were usually held in their local community.[9]

After the First World War, the jingoism was toned down in favour of sombre commemoration in the festival.[9] In 1925, 90,000 people attended an Empire Day thanksgiving service held at Wembley Stadium as part of the British Empire Exhibition.[10] However, Empire Day became more of a sombre commemoration in the aftermath of World War I, and politically partisan in the United Kingdom as the Labour Party passed a resolution in 1926 to prevent the further celebration of Empire Day.[9]

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.

Change in name and date

After World War II, the event fell into rapid decline. On 18 December 1958, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan announced in Parliament that the name of Empire Day would be changed to Commonwealth Day.[9][11]

A Canadian postmark issued on Commonwealth Day 1983

In 1973, the National Council in Canada of the Royal Commonwealth Society submitted a proposal to Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau that Commonwealth Day should be observed simultaneously throughout the Commonwealth of Nations. The proposal was included in the Canadian items for inclusion in the agenda for the 1975 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. After the meeting, it was agreed that the Commonwealth Secretariat would select a date with no historical connotations so that the entire Commonwealth could use it as a date to celebrate Commonwealth Day. At a meeting in Canberra in May 1976, senior Commonwealth officials agreed on a new fixed date for Commonwealth Day, the second Monday in March.[12] The second Monday of March was selected by Commonwealth leaders as it was a day when most schools would be in session, facilitating student participation in several Commonwealth-related activities, including mini-Commonwealth Games, simulated Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, and studies and celebrations on the geography, ecology, products or societies of other Commonwealth countries.[13]


King George VI gives his Empire Day address in Winnipeg, 1939.

Commonwealth Day is held on the second Monday in March.[14][15] However, there is not a uniform observance of the day worldwide.[12]

On the day, the Head of the Commonwealth broadcasts a message throughout the entire Commonwealth of Nations. The broadcast is addressed to the people of the Commonwealth, and not to specific governments. Past Commonwealth Day messages by Queen Elizabeth II are themed after an issue of importance to the Commonwealth which she thinks people can have an impact on. In some member states of the Commonwealth, the message is sometimes augmented by an address from a member country's president, prime minister, or another senior minister. The Commonwealth Secretary-General also issues a statement on the day, which is read on the radio or published in some Commonwealth countries.[13]

Several cities throughout the Commonwealth host multi-cultural and inter-denominational services to mark the day.[16][17] Flag-raising ceremonies for the flag of the Commonwealth of Nations are also held in several Commonwealth countries.[18]

United Kingdom

On Commonwealth Day, flags of the member states of the Commonwealth of Nations are flown in Parliament Square and at Marlborough House.[13] The flag of the United Kingdom is flown from UK public buildings on the second Monday in March to mark Commonwealth Day.[19] Flag flying guidelines for the Scottish Government and its related agencies also advises the flying of the flags of the Commonwealth of Nations and Scotland on the date, only if the building has two or more flagpoles.[20]

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking at Westminster Abbey on Commonwealth Day 2020

In London, an inter-denominational service is led by the Head of the Commonwealth at Westminster Abbey. During the service, representatives of Commonwealth countries offer the flags of member states for blessing.[13][21] A reception hosted by the Commonwealth Secretary-General is held after the service.[22] A wreath-laying ceremony to commemorate the sacrifice of Commonwealth soldiers at London's Commonwealth Memorial Gates is attended by the Commonwealth Secretary-General, and is held before the service at Westminster Abbey.[18][23]

Several other events, such as the Commonwealth Africa Summit, also take place around the United Kingdom on Commonwealth Day.[24]

British Overseas Territories

Commonwealth Day was formerly celebrated as a public holiday in several British Overseas Territories. The day was observed as a school holiday in British Hong Kong before the handover of the territory from the United Kingdom to China in 1997.[25] The date was also formerly observed as a public holiday in Gibraltar.[26] In 2021, the holiday was moved to February instead of March.[27] In 2022, Commonwealth Day was no longer listed as a public holiday in Gibraltar, with the February public holiday replaced by the Winter Midterm Bank Holiday.[28] Although the event is no longer a public holiday, the Government of Gibraltar continues to mark Commonwealth Day through various events.[29]


Commonwealth Day 2011 service at St John's Cathedral in Brisbane.

Commonwealth Day is observed by Australian state governors and the governor-general.[30][31][32] The Commonwealth Day Council of New South Wales holds an annual lunch in the presence of its patron, the governor, at Parliament House, Sydney.[33][34]


In The Bahamas, Commonwealth Day school assemblies involving flag-raising ceremonies are held.[25]


Commonwealth Day/Sovereign's Day parade in Belize City, 2019

In Belize, Commonwealth Day was also known as Sovereign's Day and was formerly celebrated as a public holiday in May. The holiday was originally celebrated in honour of Queen Victoria's birthday, although it was later set aside to recognise and celebrate the importance of being part of the Commonwealth of Nations.[35] In 2021, the Sovereign's Day was removed from the government's official list of public and bank holidays.[36]


Royal Union Flags flown alongside the flag of Canada in Ottawa on Commonwealth Day 2022

In Canada, the only official recognition of Commonwealth Day is a federal government stipulation that the Royal Union Flag be flown alongside the flag of Canada at federal installations nationwide where at least two flag poles are present.[37] The stipulation to fly the Royal Union Flag on days including Commonwealth Day, originates from the 1964 parliamentary resolution when the flag of Canada was adopted, which retained the Royal Union Flag as an official symbol in the country to signify its membership in the Commonwealth and allegiance to the Crown.[37][38]

From 1898 to 1976, Empire Day/Commonwealth Day was observed on an ad hoc basis in conjunction with Victoria Day, a federal statutory holiday in May that also serves as the sovereign's official birthday in Canada.[12][39] Empire Day/Commonwealth Day was held on the weekday before Victoria Day and was not intended to be a general holiday in itself, but a day to provide schools and civic institutions the opportunity to implement activities and lessons on Canada and the British Empire.[39] In 1977, Commonwealth Day was moved to the second Monday in March, in line with the rest of the Commonwealth of Nations.[12]


Commonwealth Day is observed as a public holiday in Tuvalu, as legislated in the country's Public Holidays Act.[40]

Commonwealth Day themes

Year Theme[41]
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 and 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
2022 Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming
2023 Forging a Sustainable and Peaceful Common Future
2024 One Resilient Common Future: Transforming our Common Wealth

See also


  1. ^ Empire Day/Commonwealth Day was formerly held on 24 May, coinciding with Queen Victoria's birthdate, or the weekday that preceded it. In 1977, Commonwealth Day was moved to the second Monday in March, ending its association with Queen Victoria's birthdate. In Belize, Commonwealth Day/Sovereign's Day continued to be observed in May until 2021.
  2. ^ Tuvalu observes Commonwealth Day as a public holiday. Belize, and select British Overseas Territories, including Gibraltar, also formerly observed Commonwealth Day as a public holiday.


  1. ^ a b c Reese, Trevor Richard (1968). The History of the Royal Commonwealth Society 1868–1968. London: Oxford University Press. p. 153. ISBN 978-0-19-212942-0.
  2. ^ a b c 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.
  3. ^ Noel Malcolm (12 December 2004). "Empire? What empire?". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 4 October 2017. Retrieved 2 October 2017.
  4. ^ a b "Empire Day". Historic UK. 2006. Archived from the original on 10 October 2017. Retrieved 2 October 2017.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Jim English. Empire Day in Britain, 1904–58. p. 248.
  7. ^ "Empire Day". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). 5 April 1916. Archived from the original on 9 October 2017. Retrieved 3 October 2017.
  8. ^ Earl of Meath, ‘British youth and the empire’,n earl of Meath, Brabazon potpourri (London, 1928), p. 95
  9. ^ a b c d Jim English (24 February 2006). "EMPIRE DAY IN BRITAIN, 1904–1958". The Historical Journal. 49 (1). Cambridge University Press. Archived from the original on 10 October 2017. Retrieved 17 August 2021.
  10. ^ Pitchford, Mark (2011). The Conservative Party and the Extreme Right 1945–1975. Vancouver: Manchester University Press. p. 82. ISBN 978-0719083631.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ a b c d "Commonwealth Day". Government of Canada. 24 October 2018. Retrieved 19 February 2023.
  13. ^ a b c d "Commonwealth Day". Commonwealth Network. 2020. Retrieved 17 August 2021.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 2017. Archived from the original on 9 October 2017. Retrieved 17 August 2021.
  16. ^ "Commonwealth Day celebrated around the world". Coventry City Council. 13 March 2023. Retrieved 23 February 2024.
  17. ^ "Commonwealth Day celebrated around the globe". Commonwealth Secretariat. 9 March 2019. Retrieved 23 February 2024.
  18. ^ a b Rehman, Mishall (16 March 2023). "Celebrating the Commonwealth". Canadian Military Family Magazine.
  19. ^ "Commonwealth:Written question – 224329". UK Parliament. 2015. Archived from the original on 9 October 2017. Retrieved 9 October 2017.
  20. ^ "Flag flying on government buildings: 2024". Scottish Government. 11 December 2023. Retrieved 23 February 2024.
  21. ^ "Commonwealth National Days". Westminster Abbey. 2017. Archived from the original on 9 October 2017. Retrieved 2 October 2017.
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ "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.
  24. ^ 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.
  25. ^ a b 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.
  26. ^ Catherine Miller (13 March 2002). "The rocky road to Spain". BBC News. Archived from the original on 18 February 2006. Retrieved 9 October 2017.
  27. ^ "Bank And Public Holidays Order 2021 (Holidays for 2022)". Gibraltar Laws. 21 October 2021.
  28. ^ "Bank and Public Holidays 2022". HM Government of Gibraltar. 18 January 2022. Retrieved 23 February 2024.
  29. ^ "Gibraltar marks Commonwealth Day - 163/2024". Government of Gibraltar. Retrieved 16 March 2024.
  30. ^ "Governor attends Commonwealth Day multi-faith service". Government House Queensland. 13 March 2024. Retrieved 16 March 2024.
  31. ^ "Commonwealth Day 2023 congregation". Government House Western Australia. 13 March 2023. Retrieved 16 March 2024.
  32. ^ "A message from His Majesty The King for Commonwealth Day". The Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia. 11 March 2024. Retrieved 16 March 2024.
  33. ^ "About the Council". Commonwealth Day Council of NSW. Retrieved 16 March 2024.
  34. ^ "Commonwealth Day Lunch". Commonwealth Day Council of NSW. Retrieved 16 March 2024.
  35. ^ "Belize commemorates Sovereign's Day/Commonwealth Day". Breaking Belize News. 25 May 2020. Retrieved 23 February 2024.
  36. ^ O'Brien, Hugh (20 May 2022). "Monday nor Tuesday is a holiday – Commonwealth or Sovereign's day is history". Breaking Belize News. Retrieved 10 April 2023.
  37. ^ a b "Canadian Heritage – National Flag Day – Giving Canada Its Own Voice". Retrieved 19 May 2013.
  38. ^ Igartua, José E. (2007). The Other Quiet Revolution: National Identities in English Canada, 1945–71. Vancouver: UBC Press. p. 181. ISBN 978-0774810913.
  39. ^ a b Hayday, Matthew; Blake, Raymond B. (2017). Celebrating Canada: Holidays, National Days, and the Crafting of Identities. University of Toronto Press. p. 89. ISBN 978-1442621541.
  40. ^ "Public Holiday Act" (PDF). 2008. Retrieved 23 February 2024.
  41. ^ "Commonwealth theme for the year". The Commonwealth. 2021. Archived from the original on 26 January 2015. Retrieved 17 August 2021.