Important historical dates, such as a revered leader’s birthday or a noteworthy battle, often become ingrained in the public consciousness through celebration or commemoration of their anniversaries. But it is not always so clear why we choose to “anniversarize” certain dates and not others.
The world religions place a great deal of emphasis on historical tradition, perhaps none more so than Judaism. Every year, Jews around the world gather to commemorate holy days like Passover and Purim that are based on specific historical-biblical events. Although the faithful are often aware of the number of years that have passed since the original events — e.g. this year was the 3,452nd anniversary of Passover — the significance of these celebrations lies in their timelessness. Every year Jews celebrate in the same way that they and their ancestors have for millennia: the permanence and continuity of their community of faith is what matters, not any accumulation of dates. Despite the fact that all the major world religions have their own calendars, this sort of mythic recurrence of ritual practice transcends any particular year. If in most cases religious dates are unimportant, whence our current obsession with counting anniversaries?
One major factor that contributed to the current practice of marking 5-year, 10-year, 25-year, 100-year, etc. anniversaries was the political and cultural development of the modern nation-state. On July 14, 1789, crowds of angry Parisians stormed the Bastille, a royal fortress in the center of the city. Both the French masses and their revolutionary leaders knew almost immediately that this armed uprising against the king’s forces represented a profound historical rupture: it consummated the Revolution and precluded any return to the Old Regime. As German historians Rolf Reichardt and Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink demonstrate, the storming of the Bastille immediately became a double symbol of the end of despotism and the beginning of French liberty. Le 14 juillet became “Bastille Day,” the reference point for counting the days, months, and years of liberty that followed — July 15 was thus Day 2 of liberty, 1790 was Year II, etc. It was almost as if the French revolutionaries needed to count the passage of time in order to convince themselves that freedom could and would last.
Debates over the proper dating of the revolutionary timeline continued for several years until 1793, when the government decided to institutionalize the new “Republican calendar.” Aside from the peculiar logic behind the 10-day weeks (décades) and the creators’ amusing efforts to rationalize and de-Christianize the French experience of time, the calendar established the convention of referring to Year I, Year II, Year III, etc., with reference to the founding of the First French Republic on September 22, 1792. In combination with the creation of various national festivals like the Fête de la Fédération in 1790, the new calendar was central to the revolutionary government’s attempt to forge a national consciousness around dates of recent historical significance — and not around traditional religious or folk holidays.
Napoleon abolished the calendar in 1805, but the practice of anniversarizing dates of national relevance continued and spread across Europe during the nineteenth century. In Germany, which didn’t exist as a unified nation until 1871, cultural nationalists built a pantheon of famous German writers, artists, and composers (it has been said that the first national birthday celebration in Europe was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s eightieth in 1829). And the republican calendar made a comeback in France during the Paris Commune, a revolutionary government that won power briefly in 1871. Later in 1880 “Bastille Day” (July 14) was inaugurated by the National Assembly. In the United States, the most obvious date of national commemoration was the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. As early as 1781 Massachusetts had declared July 4 a state holiday and by 1791 the name “Independence Day” had come into general circulation. But only in the nineteenth century did the federal government recognize the holiday. (The biggest anniversary of all was of course the bicentennial in 1976, although perhaps we’ll see its rival in 2026.)
National interests continued to dominate the institution of public anniversaries well into the twentieth century. In addition to independence days and celebratory anniversaries, the horrors of world war prompted the creation of solemn days for remembrance of the dead. November 11, 1918, marked the end of fighting in the First World War and soon became an international day of remembrance. In 1953, the State of Israel instituted a Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah). Not all “days to remember” are consistently remembered. The Nazis in Germany commemorated the anniversary of the failed Beer Hall Putsch (November 9, 1923), but today that date signifies something quite the opposite of heroic Nazis’ self-sacrifice: the so-called “Kristallnacht,” or Reich pogrom of November 9-10, 1938. Franklin D. Roosevelt called December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy,” but few people actually commemorate the date of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Collective memory is selective and rarely does it reflect the objective historical importance of common anniversaries. The political intent behind both official and unofficial days of remembrance shifts each year according to the present interests of those who remember. Most often, neither the victims nor the victors of the original event get the final word.
We are familiar with anniversary-edition DVDs, cars, video games, guitars, and so on. Companies capitalize on the strange aura surrounding multiples of five years to sell duplicate products — usually at a higher price. Can something similar be done with days of remembrance? Some anniversaries are more significant than others, particularly the 5-year, 10-year, 25-year, 50-year, and the centennials. They serve to re-focus public attention on events whose yearly commemoration might have grown dull during the “off” years. This punctuated equilibrium of memorial importance functions like a regular sales cycle, and in fact an “anniversary industry” is always poised to take advantage of the fives fetish. Flags, coins, T-shirts, TV shows, magazine features, and special edition merchandise of all sorts fill the shelves. While it’s true that public institutions often hold special events on such anniversaries for little or no cash profit, one can’t help noticing that the popular emotions associated with remembrance are easily manipulated. Even timeless religious practices aren’t immune to “holiday season.”