National holidays are an important part of a country’s identity—what and how a country celebrates can tell you a lot about how it understands its history, its place in the world and about its customs and culture.

In the United States, July 4th is observed as “Independence Day.” It marks the day on which the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress. And while the vote approving the motion to sever ties with Great Britain came two days earlier on 2 July 1776, and the document probably wasn’t actually signed until August 1776, the celebrations have basically always happened on the 4th. Much like today, these historical celebrations involved concerts, picnics and dinners, parades, speeches, red-white-and-blue bunting, cannon and gun salutes and, yes, fireworks.

Many other countries, especially former colonies, celebrate national holidays on the days when they achieved independent statehood. Sometimes these observances mark an important legal status, while, in other cases, they commemorate an important military victory or other agreement. For example, Eritrea celebrates its independence from Ethiopia on 24 May, which is the when the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front moved into Asmara and formed a provisional government, rather than the official date of the Eritrean independence referendum in April 1993. Mexico marks its independence day on September 16th, when its War of Independence from Spain began. (Of course, every good Model-UN-er knows that Cinco de Mayo isn’t Mexico’s independence day.) Five countries (India, Republic of the Congo, Republic of Korea, Bahrain and Liechtenstein) all celebrate on 15 August.

These celebrations have some similar features all over the world, with local traditions mixed in. For countries that have recently gained independence, these celebrations are important occasions for governments to announce new initiatives and to demonstrate military power. The world’s newest state, South Sudan, however, chose to cancel its independence celebrations this year, as the country is torn by violent civil war and conflict.

And while the United Nations brings states together for the common global good, it also celebrates the unique history, identity and customs of its members. Countries may host elaborate celebrations at their permanent mission to the United Nations or arrange for a recognition of the day in a United Nations body such as the General Assembly. UN photographers may also be on hand to capture images from parades and celebrations around the world.

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