Empire Day was once a globally celebrated holiday on May 24. The British Empire reigned over 25% of the world’s land surface. At the height of its power, a day was held to commemorate the empire, fostering a positive spirit of patriotism, under one specific holiday. Families and communities come together and celebrate the honor of being united with Britain.
History of Empire Day
Queen Victoria, Empress of India, is the mother of an empire spanning almost a quarter of the entire globe. She was revered and loved throughout her empire. This special event commemorated Queen Victoria’s birthday, May 24. However, it was only after her passing in 1901 that Empire Day was first celebrated. It became recognized in New Zealand two years after her death in 1903.
For Kiwis, Empire Day spoke to their national identity and reinforced close ties with Britain, their “mother country.” Empire Day was also a means for Britain to re-establish a patriotic link with significant elements of the empire.
New Zealanders were particularly keen on getting involved with the festivities. Being such an isolated nation, they believed that a strong empire was a good empire. Children paraded through the streets with their mothers and fathers, all carrying their national flags.
Today, however, Empire Day is mostly forgotten. As the former British colonies gained their independence, there was a transition to a collective celebration that focused on individual national identities united under a common cause. Empire Day, although still commemorated around the world, lost its significance as the empire was dissolved.
The Common Wealth was established instead. On the second Monday of March, all nations that formerly celebrated Empire Day, now celebrate Common Wealth Day.
Empire Day timeline
Queen Victoria, the ruler of the British Empire, passes away.
New Zealand adopts the day of Victoria’s birthday as their official Empire Day.
New Zealand’s soldiers return home after years of fighting for Britain.
Up against much public pressure, and with the decline of popularity for Empire Day, the empire is rebranded as the Common Wealth.
Empire Day FAQs
Do we have to be part of the Common Wealth to celebrate Empire Day?
Not at all, most Common Wealth Nations don’t celebrate the day anymore. You can simply be an enthusiastic member of an antique celebration.
I’m not British, is that a problem?
Most people that celebrate Empire Day are, in fact, not British. It’s a day that commemorates the empire itself and Queen Victoria. Anyone can join in.
How do you honor a long-dead monarch?
Remembrance. The whole idea behind initiating Empire Day was to commemorate the memory of Queen Victoria. Just by observing the day itself, you’re doing it.
How to Observe Empire Day
A cup of tea
There is nothing better to do on Empire Day than partake in Britain's favorite pastime, tea. Grab your favorite, Earl Grey, Cammile, English Breakfast, anything goes. Around 4 p.m., have a little afternoon tea the British way.
Delve into history
Empire Day was a significant moment in the history of the British Empire, forged in the 16th century. It is a powerful reminder of how far we have come. Grab a book or do a little internet reading. You’d be amazed what was done in the name of the empire. It’s important to reflect on history and learn from it.
Wave a union jack like crazy
There is still a strong tie between former colonies and Britain today. The significance of that bond remains in all the 54 members of the Common Wealth.
5 Interesting Facts About Empire Day
In Canada, the Day is known as Victoria Day and is still celebrated as a national holiday to date.
In 1897, Auckland raised for the erection of a statue to honor Queen Victoria which would now cost $1,440,000.
In 1903, veterans held a day of faith on Sundays, and May 24 that year fell on such a Sunday, so the first Empire Day celebration was held a day late on the following Monday.
The elite in New Zealand knew that honoring the empire meant gaining favor in trade.
Not all fun and games
Children were also taught about the empire’s dark acts, such as slavery and the opium war, not just the patriotic, imperialist view.
Why Empire Day is Important
It’s a historical perspective
A historical event as big as this allows us to look back and see how much the world has changed since that bygone era. It’s hard to believe it was only a century ago.
It still has influence
No matter where you live in the world today, Queen Victoria and the British Empire had some impact, big or small, on your country which can probably still be seen today.
It’s an opportunity for a spot of tea
Who doesn't love a cup of tea and crustless cucumber sandwich at 4 p.m. sharp? This British tradition is one that we love.
Empire Day dates