The merits of ‘observing’ – one day at a time

22 April 2021 –  Mukesh Kapila  and  Diana Arachi

Photo by Shvets Anna on

April is turning out to be a very busy month!  

After navigating April Fool’s Day (1st April), staying alert was prudent for International Mine Awareness Day (4th). This was appropriately followed by the International Day of Conscience (5th) and the International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda (7th).  While pondering on the extraordinary depths of cruelty that we are capable of inflicting on others,  it was also a suitable day for mulling over wider matters of life and death on World Health Day.

The recent excitements of the Moon and Mars landings made the International Day of Human Space Flight (12th) worth the hype. And the merciful advent of Covid-19 vaccines justified the celebration of human ingenuity on World Creativity and Innovation Day (21st)  with whole-hearted expression on Chinese Language Day (20th) or English Language Day which is shared with Spanish Language Day (23rd) because Shakespeare and Cervantes died on this day.  That is a busy day as it is also the World Book and Copyright Day. If you have been inspired to compose or invent anything, your legacy is safe with the World Intellectual Property Day (26th).

Meanwhile, some of us impatiently await International Delegate’s Day (25th). Entrusted by the world’s peoples to talk our way to global peace and development, it is good to know that our sacrifice of spending a lifetime in boring meetings is appreciated!  Moving on, it may be wise to stay in bed on the World Day for Safety and Health at Work (28th). Finally, if you survive the month, you deserve to chill on International Jazz Day (30th).  

April is not a particularly special month. The annual calendar is full of such secular Observances (although July is a bit lean presumably because many are busy observing their own holidays).  

Many Observance Days are ordained by the United Nations General Assembly or specialised UN agencies to raise awareness on happenings or issues of universal importance. Non-profits and social movements also promote special days, thereby increasing the diversity of commemorative events, and fundraising for worthy causes. We have become familiar with the likes of World AIDS Day  or World Blood Donor Day although others such as World Statistics Day or International Asteroid Day may pass us by.  Others such as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day and the International Day of Friendship deserve greater recognition. It is also comforting to know that there exists an International Tea Day to help stem the disgraceful decline in taste in some parts of the world on how the world’s favourite drink should be made.

As climate change bites, it is good that nature is getting better represented with World Environment Day and Earth Day as well as days for mountains and rivers. We can reflect on our own perilous existence on World Population Day and please don’t forget the planet’s other  beleaguered denizens – humble and mighty – on World Sparrow Day or International Tiger Day, for example.

Those who think that a day is too short should not despair. Some Observances can last a week (1-7 August is International Clown Week)  or a month (November is National Novel Writing Month), a year (in case you have not noticed, 2021 is the International Year of Peace and Trust), or decade (the Black Lives Matter movement will surely know that we are currently in the International Decade for People of African Descent).   

But, with so many commemoration moments, is the law of diminishing returns setting in? Cancer ribbons are important to spread awareness and generate solidarity. Perhaps the best known is the pink ribbon for breast cancer; October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But there are now 28 such colour-coded cancer ribbons with awareness months to match. There is lavender for all cancers, gold for childhood cancers, orange for leukaemia, zebra print for carcinoids, and so on.  With the multitude of accompanying infographics, logos and memes, attention fatigue is inevitable.

Meanwhile, the for-profit sector has got into the business with gusto.   The National Day Calendar, a private American entity, allows nominations from anyone for inventing special days; 20,000 take up the invitation annually.  National Ice Cream Day was set up to rescue the over-productive dairy industry. Black Friday and Cyber Monday have become notorious. China’s Singles Day is the world’s most lucrative commercial event generating billions in sales (although this also sheds an informative light on demography and its social impact in the People’s Republic).  

Customising content to specific days is a lucrative secondary business as corporates seek to benefit from targeted marketing opportunities. Websites such as offer hashtag and content ideas, alongside social media calendars to ensure that nobody misses the memo of the day. Event organisers get busy with conferences, influencers with their propaganda, and fundraisers with their ever-more inventive tricks.

However, in a world that is spending more and more time online, the tsunami of competing hashtags can distract attention from real-life, real-time events.  A buzz around World Bee Day creates important understanding about the crucial role of pollinators in food production but crass social media marketing hype that drowns out the news of a concurrently unfolding famine in some distant corner does grave dis-service.

To de-clutter the calendar, how about removing the Observances that are past their best-by dates? For example, switching-off lights for Earth Hour on 27th March attracts derision nowadays: it is largely irrelevant  to the world’s environmental needs, not least for the poorest billion who have no lights at all.  

In contrast, some other Observance Days deserve more attention because of their serious significance in our contested world. UNESCO’s World Heritage Day (18th April) is also known as the International Day for Monuments and Sites. This is a day for both celebrating our wonderful common heritage such as the Taj Mahal or mourning our shared loss when “cultural genocide” comes calling.  This happened with the Taliban’s iconoclastic destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas or the Islamic State’s destruction of ancient Syrian and Iraqi sites at the very cradle of civilisation. No less heinous were al-Qaida’s torching of priceless manuscripts in Timbuktu and the destruction – termed “biblioclasm” – of thousands of rare Tamil classics and irreplaceable palm leaf manuscripts in Jaffna Library, a trigger for Sri-Lanka’s decades-long bloody civil war.

It is part of the human tendency to create rituals and codify them into festivals, often with a faith-based or spiritual flavour.  In time, these become part of humanity’s intangible cultural wealth.  The creation of secular Observance Days is in the same spirit and, if they provide temporary stimulus for doing a little good in pursuit of a worthy cause, why not?   This may be practically useful in our age of diminishing time-span attention.  Observance Days serve as micro-reminders – one day at a time – for the micro-benefit of society.  So, meditating on a small plasmid on World Stick Insect Day or, if preferred, marvelling over something larger on International Orangutan Day, may be just the prescription for the health and well-being of both people and planet. But that may not guarantee all the cheer and joy you want; for that seek inspiration on International Happiness Day.

Maybe the multiplicity of Observances – especially the frivolous or money-spinning ones – irritate or breed cynicism. But if you have a problem with National Sponge Cake Day (23rd August), one of these fluffier recipes will surely elevate your mood.

If that is too long to wait for, World Hot Air Balloon Day is coming up in June.

Published by Mukesh Kapila


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