Australia doesn't have many traditions. Attempts to get Halloween off the ground have stalled due to one too many homeowners telling little kids to get off their property or they will see a scary sight. Australia's equivalent of America's Thanksgiving Day is Australia Day on January 26, the landing of the First Fleet of Convicts in Botany Bay.
Unfortunately, there is much more emotional resonance in celebrating pioneering pilgrims who broke bread with the natives than there is in celebrating criminals that stole bread and were duly hung. Needless to say, Australia has no tradition of putting the old ball and chain on your leg, and subsequently walking down the street in tribute to the founding fathers. Likewise, Australia has no statues of the pioneering Convicts holding up their shackled wrists in triumph!
Ironically, the suffering the Convicts and the cruelty of the wardens makes the anniversary of their landing quite a useful date for a national celebration. Because Australia commenced in such a negative way, the date provides a great opportunity to reflect upon how far Australia has come, and how far it still has to go.
Many Australians put such sentiments into action by using Australia Day to visit friends, attend a rock concert, or have a barbeque. Because there are no firm prescriptions about how they should think or feel, most Australians simply take the initiative to make the day into what they want it to be. Consequently, whereas many national days around the world involve citizens reflecting on the achievements of their ancestors that they have not personally lived up to, Australia’s national day involves citizens acting in a vastly superior way to the people that the date acknowledges.
Although most Australians have a good time on January 26, a few concerned citizens wish their national day was more similar to the national day of foreign countries. Specificaly, they want firm behavioural prescriptions and clear symbolic meanings. As a result, these people want the date of Australia Day to be changed to something as inspiring as Thanksgiving Day. As Daniel Bryant, a concerned citizen, argued:
" The 26th of January is an inappropriate date for Australia Day as it merely represents the anniversary of the arrival of the British to establish the penal colony of New South Wales. It does not represent of birth of a nation and disengages the aboriginal and non-British communities from their sense of involvement in nationhood. It also sends the wrong message to our Asian neighbors, reminding them of our European roots."
Tobin Maker, another concerned citizen, sarcastically expressed a similar feeling of alientation:
" Instead of reciting the oath on Australia day, which commemorates the founding of a prison in Sydney, why don't we Victorians recite the oath on the anniversary of the laying of the first stone of Pentridge Prison? "
Even though concerned citizens like Mr Bryant and Mr Maker wish for an inspirational event, no such event ever occured in Australia and wishing for one wont make it so. The alternative dates that have been suggested really go down like a lead balloon. One of these dates is January 1, which is the anniversary of the first sitting of federal parliament. Such suggestions have hit a wall because it is generally accepted that the only thing worse than having a Convict in your ancestry is having a politician. In any case, it is already a holiday and one that typically involves sleeping off a hangover.
Another suggested date is December 3, the anniversary of the Eureka Stockade. The main problem with this idea is that the Eureka Stockade has some associations with unionism and white supremacy. Such associations tend to divide Australians rather than unite them. While a barbeque or musical festival may not be sombre, at least they are superior to some kind of political argument over workers rights or genetic superiority.
Another suggested date is May 27, the anniversary of the 1967 referendum that proposed Aborigines be counted in the federal census and the federal government gain the power to make laws specifically for Aborigines. Although 90% of Australians voted in favour of the referendum, there are a few potential problems with celebrating it. The main problem is that since gaining the power to make policies specifically for Aborigines, the federal government has used it in a very destructive way. Celebrating the referendum would almost be like celebrating a white police officer being given a gun to protect black people, but who went on to shoot them instead. If the outcome doesn't match the feel-good symbolism, then perhaps the value of the feel-good symbolism needs to be questioned.
Some of the symbolism can indeed be questioned. The clause altered in the referendum was a dubious one to begin with. It had originally being created as part of the White Australia Policy and aimed to give federal politicians the power to discriminate against Chinese and Pacific Islanders. Ideally, the baby boomers in the 60s would have had the foresight to limit the power of the federal government to make race-specific policies, not extend it. Consequently, although baby boomers might like to celebrate their achievement in 1967, in symbolism or outcome, it might not have been such the achievement they believed it to be.
ANZAC Day -Dawn Service
Although ANZAC Day has been around for a long time, its mainstream popularity is a recent phenomenon. Like Australia Day, it is built on the anniversary of a tradegy. On the 25th of April 1915, the British landed Australian soldiers at Gallipoli as part of an offensive against the Turkish control of the Dardanelles. Quite stupidly, they landed the Diggers not on an open plain but on scrub-covered hills. The Turks were dug in from elevated positions and mowed down the Diggers as they leapt from the boats. Of the 1500 men who landed in the first wave, only 755 remained in active service at the end of the day.
The futulity of the event has led some Australians, such as ex-Prime Minister Paul Keating, to criticise it as being immoral, not in Australia's interests, and a failure. Even if such criticisms were justified, the decision to base Anzac Day on the anniversary of the Gallipoli landing has produced a very unique and a very humane approach to war remembrance. Instead of being a jingoistic celebration like many military days around the world, Anzac Day is very human. It begins solemnly, then descends into a party affair with drinking and gambling.
The key feature of the day is the Dawn Service. During battle, dawn was one of the most favoured times for an attack as the half-light played tricks with soldiers' eyes. Therefore, soldiers were awoken in the dark, so that by the time the first dull grey light crept across the battlefield, they were awake and alert.
The fresh light instilled a sense of optimism for the new day tempered by the fear that it could be their last. For those who survived, it bequeathed memories of burying a mate along with the awareness that they would have to preserve the feelings of what they had lost.
When the soldiers returned home, the first light of the morning would once again remind them of their experiences and they sought out the company of those who could understand. On the 25th April 1923 atAlbany in Western Australia, the Reverend White led a party of friends in what was the first ever observance of a dawn service. It wasn't until 1927 that the first official service was held at the Sydney Cenotaph.
Part of the service includes a paragraph taken from the poem 'Ode for the Fallen'.
"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them."
The poem neither attributes right or wrong nor does it glorify war as the liberator of freedom. It simply articulates what the war meant to those who were involved in it. Needless to say, it is a message that prime ministers don't always like. They want soldiers to celebrate dying for the government, not reflecting upon the anguish of war.
For decades, families and young people were not welcome at these dawn services but in recent times, they have been encouraged to take part. They have also been encouraged to take part in marches wearing the war medals of deceased relatives. Arguably this was brought about due to necessity as the stars of the show had a habit of dying each year leading to the very real prospect of crowds one day cheering on an empty street.
Another suggested change is to allow the Australians who had relatives that fought on the opposite side, to take part wearing the war medals of the deceased.
In 1998, eligible Turks in Australia were allowed to march for the first time. For the Turks, it was the culmination of two decades of campaigning as they tried to bring the spirit of friendship out of the catastrophic loss of life.
It was also their way of implementing the wisdom of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, their first president and mastermind of the Turkish resistance in the Gallipoli campaign, who said:
"Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well." Mustafa Kemal Ataturk
Although not Australian, religious festivals such as Christmas are well supported. Of course, Santa Claus looks a bit inappropriately dressed in his North Pole attire in the heat of the Australian summer. It's also quite strange listening to people sing about a white Christmas when the temperature is hot enough to fry an egg. Finally, the "traditional" Christmas turkey is also proving to be a little unsuitable for the hot weather. When the temperature is 40 degrees, the last thing people want to do is open the door of an even hotter oven. As a consequence, seafood on ice is gradually becoming Australia's favoured Christmas food.
Sometimes people try to get the northern hemisphere Christmas spirit with lights, charity and carols. Again, the Australian environment is a little problematic. Because it doesn't get dark until 9pm, it can be a bit difficult taking the kids on a tour to see some Christmas lights before bedtime. Furthermore, helping a needy person always feels much better when the needy person is freezing in the snow. It just doesn't provide the same emotional gratification when it is hot, and the needy person looks like a bogan whose been kicked out of pub for having too much to drink.
The hot weather is also having an effect on the design of the Christmas tree. In the northern hemisphere, the Christmas tree is of great importance due to the amount of time a family spends indoors around it. But in Australia, families spend more time outdoors on verandas and barbecue areas where the tree is never seen. Consequently, the tree is often some stringy shrub that has only been included because it's the "traditional" thing to do.
With so much time being spent outdoors, Christmas is strongly associated with sport. A game of backyard cricket may put a gift to quick use, and also smooth tensions between distant family members who, despite thinking they should be together on Christmas, really don't like each other.
For those who find playing sport a bit strenuous, Christmas is followed by Boxing Day where they have a great opportunity to watch it. Boxing Day marks the beginning of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht race, and tens of thousands of Sydney-siders will flock to see the Yachts commence their 628 nautical mile journey to the Apple Isle. For the next week, Australians all along the south east seaboard will gaze across the ocean to see the Yachts go by.
While Sydney has its Yacht race, Melbourne has its cricket. Up to 100,000 people will flock to the MCG to see the opening day of the test. Some will be there to get drunk and enjoy the summer sun. Some will be there because they are seriously interested in the cricket. Others will be there because it is Boxing Day tradition.
After Boxing Day comes New Year's Eve. Being in the heat of the Australian summer, this is likely to be spent outside under some fireworks, in a park laying on some grass, on the beach looking at the ocean, or standing on a crowded street looking at an even more crowded nightclub. Couples with enjoy a countdown before heading on their merry way to do what couples do. As for singles, they will await the countdown as an excuse to take the first step towards those things that couples do.
Considering that that Australia's top three heroes are a cricketer, a bushranger and a race horse, perhaps it is fitting the only time the nation stops as one is to have a wager on a dubious sporting pastime.
The discovery of gold in 1853 led to a huge influx of gamblers to Australia's shores. If the diggers struck it lucky on the goldfields, they would head for the track to see if the luck would continue. Invariably it didn't and racing clubs sought bigger and bigger meetings to relieve the prospectors of their gold.
The Victoria Turf Club staged the first Melbourne Cup in 1861 and by 1866, the Government had proclaimed the day a public holiday. To make life difficult for punters, the race is run over the unusually long distance of 3200m, it may have up to 30 starters and the favoured horses are handicapped with extra weight.
Although knowledge of the form is still a prerequisite to talk like a guru at pre-race functions, the many variables make picking a winner a case of pinning the tail of the donkey. The most successful method seems to be whether it has a good name or not. With the exception of Kiwi which evokes sheep imagery, all winners have had impressive names like Phar Lap, Black Knight or Vintage Crop.
The fact that the cup is such a lottery has helped it gain popularity amongst those with no interest in racing. There is a certain charm associated with seeing a guru who has studied the form all year, grimly stewing as some novice gloats about how she picked the winner only because she thought its name would still be pronounceable after downing her second bottle of Champagne.
But the Melbourne Cup is more than just a horse race, it is also one of the few times where Australians celebrate looking stylish and acting like a pompous wanker. In a land of the ugg boot and cork hat, world fashion designers rarely seek their inspiration with a trip down under. But on that first Tuesday in November, the dark clouds part and the elegant ladies come out to shine. It is a day when the famous proverb, " the bigger the hat, the smaller the property" is transformed into "the bigger the hat, the smaller the skirt."
Although it is only a public holiday in Victoria, around the country kind bosses stop work and use the day as a team-building exercise. There is usually a sweep, a prize for the best hat and a drink or two or many. Roughly speaking, the popularity of a boss is proportional to the quantity of alcohol drunk and inversely proportional to the amount of work completed on the day.
St Patrick's Day
St Patrick's Day is a popular tradition. Even though it may be in tribute to a patron saint of a foreign country, it involves a lot of drinking hence its appeal. A home grown saint is yet to eventuate. A Ned Kelly Day would be a possibility. As a result of Our Ned's Last Stand, police corruption was cleaned up, and a century of painters, novelists, musicians and poets gained a muse of inspiration. The only problem with a Ned Kelly day would be that having a day to celebrate an executed cop killer would be as ridiculous as having a national day to celebrate criminals.
Common attitudes towards Australia Day
The 26th of January is an inappropriate date for Australia Day as it merely represents the anniversary of the arrival of the British to establish the penal colony of New South Wales. It does not represent of birth of a nation and disengages the aboriginal and non-British communities from their sense of involvement in nationhood. It also sends the wrong message to our Asian neighbors, reminding them of our European roots. Daniel Bryant
Australia Day should be changed to a more suitable date, rather than the one that not only insults the rightful owners of this land, our indigenous peoples, but conveniently disregards the non-White (sic) migrants. Australia Day = Shame Day
Nature and diversity of culture for me is Australias(sic) beauty. I wonder how Aboriginal people would view this lunacy. Michele Walker
Instead of reciting the oath on Australia day, which commemorates the founding of a prison in Sydney, why don't we Victorians recite the oath on the anniversary of the laying of the first stone of Pentridge Prison? Tobin Maker
We must be the only country in the world that marks its national day not by celebrating its identity, but by questioning it. Ken Boundy
A country stops for a day at the races
Editorial - The Australian November 2 2004
"TWO days on the nation's collective kitchen calendar, Anzac Day and Cup Day, bring us together like no others. And although one begins with darkness and grievous loss, while the other is all colour and fun, both capture elements of the larrikinism and egalitarian impulse that are embedded deep within this nation's unique spirit. As a handicap, the Cup is the most egalitarian race the world takes notice of, and we are the only country that celebrates such a race as our featured event: it takes a super horse to win, but every nag starts with a show. Adding to this element are the many paths that can bring a horse to the starting gate at Flemington at 3.10pm on the first Tuesday in November. Alongside high-profile favourites such as Makybe Diva - bidding to become the first mare to win the Cup twice - are dark horses such as On a Jeune. But what stories they have to tell! On a Jeune emerged from the South Australian bush circuit only in May, and scored an upset victory in the Cranbourne Cup last month. Her trainer, Peter Montgomerie, will set foot on Flemington racecourse for the first time in his life today. Or what about Kiwi entrant Catchmeifyoucan? Completely unheard of a fortnight ago, this mudlark carrying only 49kg is suddenly in with a show.
This extraordinary annual event will once again be celebrated at special lunches and in office sweeps around the country. And yes, for around three minutes and 20 seconds, the race will stop the nation. All of which raises again the perennial question: why is Cup Day, one of our quintessential annual rituals, not a national public holiday? Wowsers hate the idea, and so do cultural cringers who say we should not announce to the world how deeply we feel about a horse race. Monarchists always suspect a plot in the suggestion that Cup Day could replace the Queen's Birthday holiday, but what about replacing Labour Day? It celebrates a class distinction long since dead in Australia while Cup Day celebrates something brimming with life. "
What makes us the people we are
Editorial - The Australian January 26, 2009
Just as critics argue that Australia Day celebrates a state and society that have done Aborigines many wrongs, others argue there is nothing uniquely Australian to celebrate, on this or another day. Certainly, there is no checklist of chants and speeches that are part of all our Australia Day celebrations. There are no rituals that everybody undertakes. People will celebrate the day in parks all over the country, eating as many dishes as there are countries from which we come. Some will watch cricket, others will wonder why people care about the game. Most will surf in their Speedos but many young women will laugh in the waves, much more modestly attired. Very few of them, first and fifth generation alike, will be able to articulate anything about why we should celebrate Australia, other than that it is home. And that is the point. Australia is a nation united by the idea that all are welcome who want to call the country home. Inevitably, this assumption is abused by people intent on imposing their version of how the country should be, some whose families have been here for many generations and others but one. We saw the disgraceful outcome of these attitudes in the circumstances surrounding the December 2005 Cronulla riot. But Australia has welcomed nearly seven million migrants since 1945, demonstrating that the vast majority of us have an expansive idea of who can be included among "all" Australians.