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National Celebrations

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Three people throwing stars in the air


Halloween or 'Hallowe'en' was originally the Celtic festival of Samhain1. It marked the end of the Celtic year, and since the new year didn't begin until sunrise the next day, the night was considered to be 'in-between' and 'nowhere' at the same time. Hence the belief that the 'otherworlds', which were normally separate from our own, were for that night, rubbing shoulders with our world and therefore literally anything could happen. Bonfires were lit and kept blazing throughout the night, presumably to keep evil spirits at bay. Bonfires are still lit the length and breadth of Ireland on this day, though only by youths looking for a bit of craic2 and not to keep people and property safe from marauding spirits.

In America we dress up as ghosts, goblins, pirates, and princesses, angels and devils, black cats and pumpkins, witches and clowns, hippies and nuns, doctors and heroes - all for Halloween, a pagan (and now commercial) holiday.

The Wiccans (witches or people of a pagan persuasion) believe that the 'curtain' to the realm of the dead was at its thinnest at this time. It is a festival to honour the dead and the spiritual world, like the Spanish Day of the Dead.

Traditional decorations are jack-o-lanterns (pumpkins with their insides scooped out, with faces carved in the rind. These have candles placed within, which are then lighted), false spiderwebs, cauldrons (reminiscent of witches), scarecrows and graveyards. Often these graveyards are big old pieces of cardboard decorated to resemble tombstones stood up in one's front yard; with autumn leaves heaped around for added effect.

Halloween is my favourite because I can dress up and be someone else for an evening (or the whole day). I love the smell of a freshly cut pumpkin, I love the texture of pumpkin flesh... I love candles and cauldrons...

But not everyone digs the Halloween vibe:

Sorry. I just don't get Halloween (this probably stems from never being allowed to go trick-or-treating as a child, but then nobody ever was round here). So hardly anyone actually believes in All Hallows Eve, half of those who do frown on the occult, for the other half its more of a religious thing and so the commercialisation is all wrong. For the general public it's a good excuse to go round demanding and gorging on sweets. No real presents, no family-at-the-fireside atmosphere, no songs, no special food, and no real cause for celebration. Forgive me if I miss the point. Please prove me wrong. I may just be brought up wrong and embittered.

All of us miss the point a bit these days, though. In Welsh, the day is known as Calangaeaf, 'Winter's Eve'. It was a religious festival whose real details we may never know. Like all such festivals its origin may well have had a lot to do with the practicalities of Winter drawing near. It may well have had much more of a community element in its day. Later religions (ie Christianity) had to stamp out these things and probably changed the fundamental point. By calling 1 November 'All Saints Day' they tried to change the notion of spirits into saints. The truth may be lost forever, but a ghostly residue remains.


In the USA, Thanksgiving is the biggest family holiday. It is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. Typically, people have both Thanksgiving and the day after as a holiday, making a four-day weekend. Thanksgiving involves a celebration of the first harvest of the Pilgrims, who came to Massachusetts from England on a ship called The Mayflower in 1620. These rather severe and ascetic religious fundamentalists found it difficult to raise enough crops. So the indigenous locals showed them how to plant maize and the Pilgrims made it through their first winter. Thanksgiving celebrates this fact.

Typically, the American family gathers together on Thursday for a large meal and a good time. The day before Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year in the US, as relatives criss-cross the country to return home. For this reason, at Thanksgiving, Americans usually give thanks for being with their families for another year.

The traditional Thanksgiving meal centres around a roast turkey. With the turkey is served stuffing (or dressing in some parts); a starch dish that consists of turkey fat, breadcrumbs, and spices; caramelized carrots; mashed potatoes; baked pearl onions; and pumpkin pie. You can find samples of traditional Thanksgiving menus on the Internet.

In order to distract people from cooking or to give them something to do after having eaten too much, there are two football games shown on national television on Thanksgiving Day: the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys each play other NFL teams.

I think an aspect that should be mentioned is the fact that nobody - and I mean nobody - ever finishes all the food they cook on Thanksgiving day. This leads to the next great national pastime: how many different ways are there to prepare leftover turkey. I tried to explain this American holiday to a German friend of mine and at the end of the explanation she said, 'So, on one day of the year you cook more food than you could ever possibly eat, gorge yourselves, then lay around and watch football, while being thankful?' Um, yeah.

4th July - Independence Day

In 1775 war broke out between Britain and the American colonists. The Declaration of Independence was approved by Congress on 4 July, 1776, but American Independence wasn't recognised by the British until 1783. Americans celebrate each 4th July with barbecues, copious amounts of beer, and food (generally themed with colours of red, white and blue), before ending the party with fireworks.


Tales of Guy Fawkes Day

You can read all about Guy Fawkes and The Gunpowder Plot elsewhere in h2g2. For now, let's have a few Autumnal Guy Fawkes tales and reminiscences to warm the heart...

The week leading up to Guy Fawkes is my absolute favourite in the UK. The weather is cold and crisp you get all snuggled up in your winter woolies. You first of all have Halloween at the beginning of the week and Guy Fawkes at the end.
The best thing is the food though. I come from a small village with fresh produce everywhere and the traditional meal for Guy Fawkes Night is a pork casserole made with fresh apples, scrumpy cider, bay leaves, a little tarragon, a few cloves and a bit of cinnamon. Bung it all in a large heavy-bottomed pot and stick it in the oven on a low-medium heat for about four hours. Serve with herb dumplings and carrots...
My best Guy Fawkes nights were when I was little, at home in my little town in England. (Ah, the nostalgia!) The whole of my road used to go down to one families' big back garden that opened out on to a little patch of woodland. We'd have a great big bonfire, burn a Guy, let off lots of fireworks and barbecue sausages and burgers. If I stayed up late enough till the fire had died down I was allowed to roast marshmallows.
Hardly surprisingly in 1988, fireworks were not allowed for general sale in Northern Ireland. So, any fireworks we saw were at an organised display, and any sporadic bangs we heard in-between... were bombs going off. The year I went to polytechnic college in Kingston, London, UK, it was late October, I was studying and I heard this bang outside and thought, 'Oh my God! It's a bomb!' But when it carried on all evening I realised it was just fireworks going off in people's gardens.


St Patrick's Day or 'Paddy's Day', as it is universally and derisively known, takes place on 17 March each year. Supposedly an opportunity to celebrate the life and times of that great Breton/Welsh/English (delete where applicable), but definitely not Irish, saint. It is celebrated all over the world, but it is first and foremost an Irish occasion. Traditional Saint Patrick's Day celebrations run something along the lines of:

  • Getting up
  • Starting to drink
  • Waking up on 18 or 19 March, depending on the severity of the hangover

A newfound pride in Ireland's national heritage has meant that the Irish government has recently transformed the St Patrick's Day celebrations into a thing of wonder and beauty. Whereas previously the parade consisted largely of a few Americans slowly ambling the length of O'Connell Street preceded by cardboard floats advertising local city centre shops, there now exists a very good festival. And it lasts a whole week. In Dublin there are free concerts, street theatre, and children's events, all of which culminate in a decent parade and a spectacular pyrotechnic display. As regards to what you should wear, well, green is a must, but most people settle for a little bit of shamrock pinned to their lapels. This looks quite dapper early in the morning but by 11.00pm that shamrock has a tendency to resemble a little bit of garnish that has fallen from your post-pub kebab.

There is no particular food that should be consumed on the day on account of the fact that there's enough nourishment and liquid in Guinness to sustain anybody. If you're celebrating Paddy's Day anywhere but in Ireland, don't be fooled into thinking that it's cute to consume food that's coloured green when it normally wouldn't be. As a rule, the Irish don't go in for that sort of thing. Finally, it is traditional to end the evening with a burst of old Irish songs that nobody can ever remember words for, but the tunes of which are enjoyed with a teary eye and an uplifted heart.


Hogmanay is a Scottish tradition at New Year and Scotland is arguably the best place in the world in which to celebrate it. The tradition of Hogmanay started way back in the dim and distant past and has remained intact throughout the years. The festival lasts as long as is needed, but at least three days are required to really get in to it. All night, every night, you have to celebrate. And if you don't see the dawn, you are not doing it right. Or maybe you're unable to actually see by that time, in which case you may be doing it perfectly.

  • Traditional drink - Yes please, and lots of it. Non-traditional drink, too. As long as it is alcoholic, it should be imbibed sometime during the occasion.

  • Food - This includes soup (lentil), porridge, big cooked breakfasts, meat (and lots of it; in fact, eat as many different kinds as possible), and don't forget to use up any Christmas leftovers.

  • The Bells - When everyone wishes each other happy new year, lots of drinks and toasts abound, and much hugging and kissing.

  • First Footing - It is meant to be good luck if the first person across the threshold is male, tall, dark and handsome, and brings with him a lump of coal and some biscuits. It normally means that some poor bugger is left outside during the bells (and for the following ten minutes) freezing and waiting for somebody to hear the doorbell ring, just to let him in. After all the hugs and drinks it is time to move on to your neighbours. Take some drinks, take the bagpipes if you can play (hard in cold weather) and go visiting. Stagger back just after dawn, sleep for a few hours, get up, have a big cooked breakfast, recuperate (or go for a bracing walk) until evening when it happens all over again. And the night after that, too.

Enjoy yourself. But be practical...

The national dress is the kilt, but I will be damned if I am walking a couple of miles in a kilt, in the depths of winter, in Scotland - it's just not going to happen. Basically, wrap up warm.

Melbourne Cup Day

It may only be a horse race, but everybody in Australia stops everything for that five minutes on the second Tuesday in November each year.

Most of us do even better and start off with a long lunch. While always intending to go back to work after the race, the majority of us have trouble finding the office. Something to with the Champagne, possibly...


Germany is divided up into 16 States, and those with a higher Catholic population (predominantly Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg in the south) take part in more celebration days than others.

  • 1 January - New Year's Day.

  • 6 January - Heilige Drei Könige or 'three kings'. This holiday is only celebrated in certain parts of the country.

  • April - Good Friday and Easter Monday.

  • 1 May - May Bank Holiday (also known as Tag der Arbeit, meaning, paradoxically, 'day of work').

  • June - Ascension Day, Whit Monday and Corpus Christi (not celebrated everywhere in Germany).

  • 3 October - since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, this day has been officially the Day of German Reunion. It used to be on 17 June before there was a reunion. People still haven't got used to this day being a holiday.

  • 31 October - Reformation Day. This is the day the Protestant Churches have for themselves. Also only in some States.

  • 1 November - All Saints Day.

Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve are usually only half days. The shops certainly shut at lunch time on these days, so shop early if you need to buy food to feed 12 hungry mouths over the holidays. If Christmas and New Year fall on a weekend, hard cheese - you don't get the extra Monday.

Unofficial Holidays in Germany

First and foremost - Fasching/Fastnacht/Karnival

In Catholic areas, the tradition of living it up before Lent and using up everything in the cupboard is a really big excuse for celebration. You party from the Thursday before Shrove Tuesday through to midnight on the Tuesday without sobering up. It is accepted in Cologne (the epicentre of this not-to-be-underestimated four-day party marathon) that you can sleep with anyone during this time, even if you're married to someone else. Everybody does it. They claim. There are many, many traditions connected with this festival. All over the south of Germany you'll see variations of a pseudo-serious Elfer-Rat, which is a group of 11 honourable (and usually quite important) men in silly hats who organise meetings and parties and processions. The number 11 has a lot of significance, too, and all parties and events start at '8.11pm' or '7.11pm' - always 11 minutes past the hour.

Each town has its procession, and the biggest ones are televised; the Monday before Shrove Tuesday is given up almost entirely to them. This day is known as Rosenmontag. In Cologne, Düsseldorf and surrounding cities, everything is shut. No one would go to work anyway. Around this time it is customary to drink Starkbier: a very potent beer which was brewed by monks for use during Lent when they, particularly, were not allowed to eat. Instead, they made up for the calories by drinking this darker, richer beer.

On Ash Wednesday, it is traditional to eat salted herrings - as everyone has a hangover.


The Independence of Mexico is celebrated on 16 September, the day when Miguel Hidalgo, a priest, rang bells from his church to call the villagers to protest against the 'evil government', as he called it. It wasn't his intention, at the time, to make a claim for Mexico's independence. Nevertheless, these days, the independence celebrations that he inspired involve the mayor of each city ringing bells on the night of 15 September, at around midnight. The criollos (Spaniards born in New Spain) all go off to a ball to celebrate taking their position as the new masters, with the natives remaining the oppressed class.


Due to rarely being united or being 'self-ruling' in its 1500-year history, Wales has no 'official' national day of any kind. At the present time, any official day would have to be declared by the UK Parliament (not the Welsh National Assembly) in which the Welsh members number only around 5%.

25 January - Saint Dwynwen's Day/Dydd Santes Dwynwen

Saint Dwynwen is the Welsh equivalent of St Valentine and her day is a day for lovers.

1 March/Mawrth 1af - St David's Day/Dydd Gwyl Dewi

The day that Wales's patron saint died sometime after 600 AD (and also supposedly the day of his birth). It is traditional to hold eisteddfodau3 on this day, especially in schools. Local government bodies also mark the day, some by giving their staff the day off. People often wear either of Wales's 'plant' symbols - the daffodil or (usually if they're young males who like a distinct odour) the leek. Excess drinking to celebrate the day does occur but is not common. The Welsh 'Red Dragon' flag is prominent around Wales on this day. A number of territories around the world (including Texas) mark this day.

16 September/Medi 16fed - Glyndwr's Day/Dydd Glyndwr

The day in 1400 that Owain Glyndwr declared himself Prince of Wales. In 1404 he later was proclaimed ruler of Wales in front of emissaries from Scotland, France and Castille. It occurred towards the beginning of his war of independence which lasted a little over a decade. Despite growing calls, it is not an official celebration and few celebrations occur.

11 December/Rhagfyr 11fed - Llywelyn's Day/Dydd Llywelyn

The day that Wales's last indigenous prince was killed in 1282. It is not an official day and enjoys few commemorations.

The Netherlands

The thing that comes to mind immediately when one thinks of celebrations in Holland is Queen's Day. It's a major celebration, which is held throughout the entire country. Queen's Day has been celebrated in Holland for over a century now. It started with Queen Wilhelmina in 1898. Her birthday was on 31 August, and that day was an official holiday for 50 years. After that, Juliana became queen in 1948, and since her birthday was on 30 April, Queen's Day moved. Since 1980, Beatrix has become queen. Her birthday is on 31 January, but she decided that she did not want the date to change, so Queen's Day has remained on 30 April.

The day always includes a visit to a 'random' town or city by the entire royal family with big media coverage and big parties everywhere in the country. When asked where one should celebrate Queen's Day, most people will respond, 'Amsterdam'. Every year, the city is filled with people from all over the country to visit concerts, dance events or just take a walk in the city centre and do a bit of shopping.

Of course, Amsterdam is not the only place to get in to the swing of things; almost every town has special events. Big markets, concerts, fancy air displays are all common throughout the country. The colour of the day is orange, and it can be seen literally everywhere you look.

1The 'mh' in Samhain is silent, so it is pronounced 'saue-in':'saue' as in sauerkraut.2Craic is a Gaelic term meaning a bit of a laugh.3The eisteddfodau is an annual festival of Welsh poetry and music.

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