Most modern nations celebrate a day in honor of Their heritage each year. For many this takes the form of an Independence Day, marking the date when the nation became a distinct political unit. Perhaps the oldest Independence Day is August 1 in Switzerland. It marks the day in 1291 when three Swiss cantons, or states, agreed to form a union. Switzerland has now grown to 26 cantons, and they all celebrate independence on August 1.
After World War II, many colonies of European nations gained independence. Each year some hold festivals celebrating their freedom, such as the ones in India (below left) and in Mexico. Even nations so ancient that they cannot record an independence date have established a national festive day. For example, in England there are fireworks on Guy Fawkes Day, November 5, to commemorate the day in 1605 when the British government uncovered and foiled a plot to blow up Parliament.
A number of nations consider themselves to be creations of revolutions. The French observe Bastille Day every July 14. It marks the day in 1789 on which a Paris mob stormed the dreaded royal prison, the Bastille. The French people regard this event as the beginning of their freedom. In the United States, Americans observe a holiday on July 4, the day in 1776 on which the Declaration of Independence was adopted. Americans celebrate the day with parades, speeches, and fireworks. During the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain, the British attacked coastal strongholds from the sea with cannons and rockets.
After the British bombarded Fort McHenry, in Baltimore, Maryland, in this way, an American lawyer named Francis Scott Key wrote a poem describing the battle that he had witnessed. Later his poem, set to music, became the American national anthem. Today, as Americans watch “the rockets’ red glare” during Independence Day fireworks displays, they are reminded of the link between the beauty of the celebration and the seriousness of battle.