Public Holidays and Constructed Tradition

Nationality and culture are typically taken for granted. In actual fact, many of our traditions and aspects of our national identity were intentionally invented. Hobsbawm (1992) argued that many customs and traditions were intentionally created in order to create national unity.[1] Anderson (1982) argued that nations were merely an “imagined political community.”[2] It took Hobsbawm’s ‘invented tradition’ to form that national unity which made citizens feel comradery with people they had never met.[3] One such method of inventing traditions is the forming of public holidays.

Public holidays can be used to highlight events in a nation’s history, and more importantly, create a sense of a nation’s history. Only through the appropriation of events as one’s own do nations form a history rather than relying on the individual perspectives of its members. In this way, a celebration of the Battle of Waterloo becomes a British achievement rather than only for those directly involved.

This essay will be examining the effects of public holidays in illustrating invented tradition in the nations of the United States (USA) and South Africa (SA). Public holidays will be seen to contribute to a suitable narrative, highlight events which encourage pride in one’s nation and separate a nation from others. Ultimately, this will show how public holidays are fabricated in order to focus upon a specific era of history in order to form a collective historical unity.

Public holidays are typically created by an authority figure, such as the state, for the purpose of appropriation of particular events in order to form a suitable narrative and legitimize their actions.[4] This can be seen quite aptly in SA. While many of the South African holidays appear to have inoffensive purposes and names,[5] this has all become a part of the narrative. Workers Day emphasizes the role of workers, unions and Communist movements against Apartheid. Freedom Day highlights the 1994 elections in order to legitimize post-1994 actions. Days like Youth Day and Women’s Day allow the post-1994 government to appropriate events which were not necessarily their actions. In this way, our collection of public holidays is an appropriation of history to legitimize the ruling party.

Public holidays focus on events which benefit the narrative and ignore those that don’t. In the United States, the 4th of July is celebrated as a great victory but there is no such holiday commemorating many of their defeats. This is not the narrative they wish to tell. The American historical narrative is one of victory, perseverance and freedom. It has been constructed so as not to allow room for failures such as the Battle of New York or the fact that the USA perpetuated slavery for almost a century. In this way, public holidays create a timeline of events which the society wishes to remember and model themselves from, while conveniently ignoring or alienating aspects of their history that they do not like. Every American is a patriot, but none of them are slavers, so to speak.

National pride grows fastest in adversity and when in competition with an ‘other’. Hobsbawm (1992) argued that invented tradition occurred more frequently during times of radical change. This would include revolution and war. Both the USA and SA have formed narratives and an identity through opposition to a foe. The USA, just over two centuries ago, formed their identity as Americans by opposing their colonial masters, the British. American revolutionaries (called “Patriots”) formed the bulwark of the new national identity while those who still identified as British moved north to modern day Canada, forming a national identity more loyal to Britain.[6] Post-1994 SA has formed a common foe against Apartheid. Public holidays commemorate victories against or atrocities performed by the previous government. This is all done to demonize the previous regime.

Both SA and the USA share a common background as states which formed from a form of revolution. SA’s revolution was much more peaceful but the rhetoric and process of newly invented traditions have come to demonize the past. The USA glorifies their victories more than demonizes their past.

This essay has examined how public holidays are constructed specifically to fit into a narrative; how particular events are chosen while others are ignored and how these events typically focus on an opposition. By all these methods, a society successfully creates a suitable narrative in order to form a national identity.


Anderson, Benedict “Introduction.” In Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 1-16. London: Verso, 1991.

Ferguson, Niall “White Plague.” In Empire: How Britain made the Modern World, 53-112. London: Penguin Books, 2003.

Hobsbawm, Eric “Introduction: Inventing Tradition.” In The invention of tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm, 1-14. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

International Workers Day. SA History. Accessed July 31, 2015.

Public holidays. South African Government. Accessed July 31, 2015.


[1] Eric Hobsbawm, “Introduction: Inventing Traditions,” in The Invention of tradition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 1.

[2] Benedict Anderson, “Introduction,” in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991), 15.

[3] Ibid., 15.

[4] Some customs have been adopted from the bottom-up, without state intervention, but Public holidays in modern nations are typically the result of government legislation.

[5] Public holidays, South African Government, accessed July 31, 2015,

[6] Niall Ferguson, “White Plague,” in Empire: How Britain made the Modern World (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 110.