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Every year, on the second Monday of March, 56 countries from around the world hold celebrations to commemorate Commonwealth Day. While this day was originally referred to as “Empire Day” and had been celebrated on Queen Victoria’s birthday on May 24th since 1904, Commonwealth Day wasn’t established as such until 1977, when one of its member states proposed this date for all member states of the organization to simultaneously celebrate this occasion, led by the head of the Commonwealth of Nations, the current British ruler.

What is the Commonwealth?

Officially called the Commonwealth of Nations, this organization is mainly a political association consisting of 56 member states across the world tied together by their history with the former British Empire. The current head of the Commonwealth is the reigning sovereign of the United Kingdom, but a British king or queen doesn’t automatically become head—that position is chosen by the member states. The organization’s headquarters are located in London, UK. While the British monarch is the ruler of 15 of its member states (also known as the Commonwealth realms), 36 countries are republics, and the remaining five are governed by different monarchs.

Nowadays, any country can join the Commonwealth, as it operates on a volunteer basis, and none of its member states are subject to or dependent on another one. These nations are bound together by their shared goals and ideals of peace, human rights, sustainability, democracy and prosperity, among others, and by the Commonwealth Charter (signed in 2012).

What are the origins of the Commonwealth?

In 1926, the British Empire leaders gathered at the Imperial Conference signed the Balfour Declaration, which gave equal status to the United Kingdom and its Dominions, but still considered them as allies to the British Crown. The resulting allegiance was referred to as the British Commonwealth of Nations. Later, the Statute of Westminster was passed in 1931, which formalized the relationship and established the basis for the relationship between the Commonwealth realms and the Crown, limiting the British influence on its former territories and increasing the nations’ sovereignty and rights. The Statute originally affected the UK, Australia, Canada, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland (now a Canadian province), New Zealand and South Africa.

The final change to the association was introduced with the publication of the London Declaration in April 1949. The Declaration was issued by the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference, but only related to India—which was one of the last British Empire colonies to gain independence from the Crown. The Declaration reaffirmed India’s status as an independent republic while still remaining part of the Commonwealth. The Declaration has been marked as the beginning of the modern Commonwealth, since no further changes have been made since then.

How to celebrate Commonwealth Day

Each member state is free to celebrate Commonwealth Day however they choose, but not all of them go all out with the celebrations. In the UK, the British monarch attends an Anglican service held in Westminster Abbey, also joined by the Commonwealth Secretary-General and Commonwealth High Commissioners. The king or queen also delivers a broadcast address to the Commonwealth countries. Although it is not considered a public holiday, Commonwealth Day usually begins a week full of cultural events such as parades and shows and other activities that follow a specially chosen theme for the festivities (a theme that changes every year), which falls in line with the goals expressed in the Commonwealth’s Charter.

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