Celebrating Australia Day

I’m a relatively new Australian, gaining citizenship in May 2010. For me, Australia Day has always held a special significance because it is the day I came to visit Australia for the first time back in 2005. This wasn’t intentional – my flight out of New York was delayed for over a day due to a blizzard and because I missed connections and had to be re-routed, I ended up arriving right on the country’s official national day.

It doesn’t get much more Aussie than thongs and barbecues. Photo by Nina Matthews Photography from Flickr.

Today Australia celebrates, officially, the landing of Captain Arthur Phillip at Port Jackson in what is now Sydney, claiming the land for the British Empire on 26 January, 1788. What started as a small annual celebration in the state of New South Wales from 1808 has evolved into a major national public holiday for the entire country since 1946. While these early celebrations were about the white, British aspect of the new society, today Australia Day has a different meaning: embracing diversity, tolerance, reconciliation and community. Aussies celebrate modern Australia with all of its triumphs and challenges.

Aussies hit the beach on Australia Day 2011. Photo by Rule17_ from Flickr.

Most Aussies will celebrate with family and friends at a barbecue in the searing summer heat, go to the beach or attend a sporting event. Over the years different traditions have developed, from the first Australia Day Regatta in 1836, which is now the oldest continuous sailing race in the world. In 1838, the first ever public holiday was held for the occasion, fifty years after the First Fleet landed. People crowded the foreshores and filled boats on the water, ending the day with crackers and rockets. In 1960, Sir Macfarlane Burnet became the first Australian of the Year in what would become an annual award. In 1968, Lionel Rose was named the first Aboriginal Australian of the Year.

In the 1970’s citizenship became a focus for Australia Day. Citizens were encouraged to make non-citizens feel like part of the Australian family with a coupon from the major newspapers reading ‘Belong to Australia – as a citizen.’  Today, Australia Day is the greatest occasion for becoming a citizen, with over 300 ceremonies taking place on the holiday last year to make Australians out of 13,000 people from 143 countries. Existing citizens can also re-affirm their dedication to their country.

A citizenship ceremony for around 70 new citizens on Australia Day 2011. Photo by Mosman Council from Flickr.

Not everyone was pleased with the celebration of white settlement in Australia. The Aboriginal Community has given the 26th of January names like Invasion Day and Survival Day. Huge demonstrations, such as the ‘Freedom, Justice and Hope’ march in Sydney called for an evaluation of the treatment of Aboriginals and a request for improvements in democracy for them. Re-enactments of the landing of the First Fleet were common until 1988 when they were declared insensitive to the Aboriginals. That year was named the Year of Mourning for Aboriginals. It also became symbolic of their survival.

Australia Day 2011 fireworks at Birrarung Marr on the Yarra River in Melbourne. Photo by JamesDPhotography from Flickr.

For most Australians, today will be a fun, relaxing day off work. We’ll enjoy barbecues, sports, concerts, festivals and fireworks with our friends and families. Some of us will become true Australians for the first time. If you’re Aussie or live in Australia, John and I raise our beers to you – have a wonderful day!


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