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Australia might be a diverse country, but most Australians will tell you that Australia Day is the most important holiday. The history of Australia Day holiday is tied with national identity and pride, and many people use the opportunity to celebrate with various communal activities.
Find out more about this important holiday here before you visit Australia.
What is Australia Day?
Australia Day is an annual celebration of the origin of Australia as a country, celebrated every 26 January. The day signified the coming of the First Fleet from England to Australia, which marked the start of the first colony.
Now, Australia Day is a celebration of culture and identity, marked with events such as parades, races, concerts, and speeches. 26 January also became a national holiday. Important events such as the swearing for Australian citizenship and award presentations are also conducted on the day.
How did Australia Day start?
The history of Australia Day holiday dates back to 1788, when the First Fleet arrived in New South Wales to form a penal colony, under the order of the British Admiralty. Captain Arthur Phillip, the commander of the fleet, raised the British flag at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788. However, the actual colony was not officially established until 7 February of the same year.
While it was not the official date of the colony establishment, it was remembered as the day when the captain and his crew celebrated the success of the fleet, marked with toasts and cheers for the king. Many artists have commemorated the arrival of the First Fleet and the first flag planting in their artworks. One of them is an oil sketch from 1937 by British impressionist painter Algernon Talmage.
When did Australia Day Become a Holiday?
26 January did not start as an official holiday, and documents such as the New South Wales Almanack even did not record it. However, starting 1808, many colony members and liberated convicts started to use the date to declare their love toward the land where they lived.
How did they celebrate? By merriment, drinking, meal, and gathering, just like how modern Australians celebrate now. The colony members started the celebration at sunset on 25 January, with a toast and merriment that lasted to the next day.
After 1808, almanacs started to put “Foundation Day ” or “First Landing Day ” as the remainder of 26 January. Colony members not only had drinks and merriment, but also formal anniversary dinners. Many of these gatherings became notable events, especially if they were held by important figures or officials. Publications like the New South Wales Advertiser and the Sydney Gazette started describing these events too.
Finally, Governor Lachlan Macquarie established 26 January as a national holiday in 1818, the 30th anniversary of the date. Under his decree, all government officials could take a day off, one pound of meat as “extra allowance”, and 30-gun salute. However, it was not known as Australia Day until 1919, and it took many changes before the modern government of Australia established it as a national holiday in 1994.
Interesting Facts about Australia Day
As a longstanding tradition, Australia Day has a lot of interesting facts. For example, did you know that the first 26 January celebration was marked by a rebellion? On 26 January 1808, the day after drinking and merriment, the New South Wales Corps conducted mutiny against Governor William Bligh over conflict about his leadership. The name came from the fact that the corps had a monopoly on illegal rum trade.
There were also many name changes for this celebration. While the early celebrations were called Anniversary Day, the name “Australia Day” was used as the name of a fundraising celebration on 30 July 1919 for the first World War. The date for Australia Day changed back to 26 January in the 1940s.
How Do Aussies Celebrate Australia Day?
Just like how the first colony was essentially immigrants, Aussies now celebrate Australia Day as a reminder of their Australian identities, even with diverse and colorful backgrounds. Because of this spirit, 26 January also became the swearing day for the new citizens of Australia.
People celebrate the holiday with community and family gathering, outdoor activities, barbecue, picnic, and many more. The National Australia Day Council holds various official events that the public can attend, such as concerts and sports events.
Different states often have their own unique celebrations. For example, in Perth, you can see the City of Perth Skyworks, known as the biggest firework display in Australia. Adelaide has “Australia Day in the City”, marked with concerts, parades, and firework displays. Melbourne, a culturally diverse city, celebrates with marches, concerts, and performances by community members of various backgrounds.
The Meaning for Australia Day for Indigenous Aussies
Since Australia Day originated from the British colony, there have been debates about what it means for Aboriginal Aussies.
The debate actually started in 1888, when some parliament members discussed the displaced and unfortunate members of the First Nations community. Reportedly, Premier Sir Henry Parkes said that it would only scream the fact that they have robbed these people.
However, the First Nations people nowadays have their own voices. Instead of Australia Day, the indigenous populations declared 26 January as the Day of Mourning, starting in 1938. In 1988, Indigenous communities also started to use “Invasion Day”, a day where they commemorate the losses of cultures and lives due to the British colony.
Other community members also use the name “Survival Day”, referring to the ongoing struggle indigenous people face even centuries after the first colony arrived. These events are often marked by marches, protests, concerts, and other events by indigenous people. As a sign of good faith, many official celebrations have started to include the indigenous population. The official website for Australia Day even has a large opening text that recognizes indigenous people and the painful part of the holiday.
Despite all the controversies and debates surrounding the day, Australia Day is still the most celebrated holiday in the country. Understanding more about the history of Australia Day holiday will help you appreciate it more. Don’t forget to catch up with the celebrations if you visit during this time!