How Our Australia Day Began

Although January 26 did not become identified as Australia Day until comparatively recently, the practice of celebrating the significance of that date for Australia’s history has its origins in the early nineteenth century. At this time, some of the early settlers began holding a dinner on that date, to mark the anniversary of the day in 1788 on which the First Fleet under Captain Arthur Phillip landed at Sydney Cove. In 1818, Governor Macquarie ordered a public holiday on that day, to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the landing.

At this time, the name Australia was not used in connection with the anniversary. This name for the country was first suggested by Matthew Flinders in 1814 and its use was becoming more widespread. The name was adopted by General Macquarie in 1817, and became one of the toasts at the anniversary dinner in 1826. Later, the dinner in 1837 was stated to be only for those born in Australia. This dinner was the first one to be marked with the Sydney Regatta, which became the central event of the anniversary celebrations.

By the centenary in 1888, marking 100 years of occupation, the celebration was still primarily a Sydney event, but representatives of the other colonies in the continent – South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania – joined in the celebrations. Most of them saw this as a celebration of being British rather than of being Australian, as there was a slightly grudging attitude towards the assumption of seniority by New South Wales.

Three years after the centenary celebration, in 1901, the colonies finally joined together in a federation to form the Commonwealth of Australia, with its capital initially in Melbourne. Following this, there was some argument as to whether Australia Day should continue to be celebrated on January 26, with an alternative proposal being April 29, the date of Captain Cook’s landing at Botany Bay. However, after World War I, January 26 continued to be marked in Victoria, under the name Foundation Day. The ANA (Australian Natives’ Association) named January 26 as Australia Day in 1930, and persevered in a campaign to have this adopted by all the states. By 1931 the date was known as Australia Day in Victoria, but as Foundation Day or Anniversary Day in other states. However, by 1935, the name had finally been adopted by all the states, with the occasion celebrated as a long weekend. Sydney remained the main location for the events, and 1938 saw the celebration of the sesquicentenary there, by the premiers of all the states. It featured a re-enactment of the landing at Sydney Cove in 1788, followed by a huge pageant, March to Nationhood, involving 120 motorized floats.

In 1946, the ANA instigated the setting up of an Australia Day Celebrations Committee, later known as the Australia Day Council. Similar organizations in the other states subsequently acted in rotation to form the Federal Australia Day Council, and by 1979 a National Committee was established in Canberra, now the Federal capital, Finally, in 1994, the day of January 26, rather than the long weekend, was established as Australia Day.

Today, Australia Day is the country’s biggest annual event, comparable to Thanksgiving in the USA, and is an official public holiday. The national focus of the celebration is the presentation of the awards for Australian of the Year, begun in 1994, and established in Canberra in 2004. However, what is really important to the population is the local parties and festivals in every community in the land.


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