WEDNESDAY, MAY 23: May 24th has become what its official name implies — a day to celebrate Bermuda.
It’s the second all-Bermudian holiday that has evolved out of Bermuda’s history to become a Bermuda tradition. The first was Cup Match, which evolved out of the commemoration of Emancipation day, 1st August 1834. But 24th May — officially known as Bermuda Day — has a more chequered history.
Originally it was Empire Day in commemoration of Queen Victoria’s birthday. The Bermuda authorities of that day decreed that it should be a public holiday, and it has been ever since 1909. In past years, Empire Day, then Commonwealth Day, was just a cooling out day. But even then, it was colloquially known as 24th May.
Until 1968, Bermuda also had an afternoon off in April to put on the “Floral Pageant”.
This was a national coming together that saw thousands of Bermudians come to town to watch the ‘floats’ pass along front Street. In 1968, rioting sparked by a racial confrontation commenced soon after parade end. After that the authorities decided to ban the “Floral Pageant”. So no “Floral Pageant” or “Easter Parade” ever again.
Since about 1909, Bermuda’s black community had been putting on an informal ‘marathon’ that saw runners race from Somerset or St George’s to town — but always ending on Court Street. This ‘marathon’ was always the main event — for black Bermudians. Bermuda’s white community had always started ‘Fitted Dinghy’ racing on 24th May. So the two communities have always had special events that always took place on 24th May.
In 1979, in the aftermath of the Pitt Commission and the December 1977 riots, the Government-of-the-day decided that “24th of May” should be re-designated as “Bermuda Day” and should be the occasion of a carnival or Caribbean type parade. The idea was to try to bring Bermuda’s separated communities together again, as had been happening with the banned “Easter Parade”.
From 1979 on, the process of creating a tradition got seriously underway. There was upset and unpleasantness along the way. Over time, along the parade route, Bermudians, principally black Bermudians, expressed degrees of resentment against Filipino and white American participation.
There were also parade route and community grumbles about other participation by other groups.
Eventually, by 1999 the parade and the day had settled down to what it is now.
24th May starts with food preparation days before, and the collection of awnings and shelters in the last few days. The day before the parade, ignoring pleas from the authorities, the tradition of ‘marking out spaces’ takes place. Bits of duct tape, string, wool, even spray paint, start appearing.
These mark off swatches of sidewalks and roadside. Everybody understands that a piece of string tied between two trees with a name on it means that this space ‘belongs’ to someone and is now as private and sacrosanct as if it were fenced off and guarded by armed sentries and pitbulls.
Nationally, no one breaks that now traditional rule.
Early on 24th May, at these pre-selected and sealed-off spots, families begin arriving and setting-up awnings, chairs, drink, and food. Above all else, food. The runners go up to Somerset and get ready to race back to town. At 9am on 24th May, the race starts and the day officially gets underway.
The whole island tunes in to see who’ll be the first runner to cross the line at the Bernard Park finish. After that the parade gets underway and starts passing the masses of spectators who’ve lined the streets. The sailing community, still predominantly white, takes to the water, and Fitted Dinghy racing starts.
Despite all the official promises that the parade will be better organized and will have fewer gaps, the parade holds to its own tradition and the gaps stay.
For decades, 24th May has defied all attempts to change it. The one time effort to make it coincide with the American Memorial Day weekend died in a huge public furore. Present day attempts to have it known as Bermuda or Heritage Day are lasting longer, but with the same degree of success.
Though marked on the calendar as Bermuda or Heritage Day, to all the rest of us lot, it is and will always be, 24th May — even when we celebrate it on 25th May.
It took 112 years for “Cup Match” to become a recognized public holiday. I wonder how long it will take for the ‘authorities’ to give up and just let 24th May be 24th May?