Australians are enthusiastic participants in community events and commemorations, ranging from small-scale local activities to major national celebrations.
Some events are marked nationally in formal activities organised by the government. Some are truly Australia-wide, involving national programs as well as local celebrations throughout the country. Others are limited to specific communities, celebrating local characteristics or historical occurrences.
Many events also reflect Australians’ well known willingness to undertake voluntary social and community work. More than six million Australians over the age of 16 years are active volunteers in diverse fields, including emergency services, welfare, environment and conservation, teaching and fundraising. Many of Australia’s bushfire fighters and emergency service officers are volunteers.
Australian community and national events include:
- annual remembrance ceremonies in most Australian cities and country towns to honour Australians who perished in war
- multicultural festivals to mark the contribution that more than 6.5 million migrants from around 200 countries have made to Australian society
- holidays and religious festivals that have significance for some of the ethnic groups that make up Australian society, such as Christmas, Chinese New Year, Ramadan and Diwali
- week-long events to recognise the history, culture and achievement of Indigenous Australians
- annual agricultural shows in towns and cities
- collection days to raise money for charitable causes such as the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and Legacy (for war widows)
- special days to draw attention to, and raise money for, research on specific illnesses such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, cancer and heart disease
- commemorative days to highlight issues such as women’s rights and the introduction of the eight hour working day
- major sporting events such as the annual Australian Rules Football and Rugby League grand finals, the Sydney to Hobart yacht race, and the Melbourne Cup—the horse race that stops the nation.
Commemorations and holidays
Australians commemorate certain days each year that have particular meaning or national significance. These days are a holiday for everyone. They are usually held on the same day across the country, but some local holidays are celebrated only in particular states or territories. Most workers in Australia have about 12 national and state or territory public holidays in addition to their annual holidays. The main holidays are:
New Year’s Day, 1 January, is a national public holiday. The most common time for people in Australia to take their annual leave is between mid-December and the end of January. Many Australians also celebrate the Chinese New Year in February.
Australia Day, the national day, is celebrated on 26 January each year. It commemorates the anniversary of the unfurling of the British flag by Governor Arthur Phillip at Sydney Cove in 1788. Australia Day is a national public holiday, and special activities and ceremonies are held across the country to mark the event. These include the Australian of the Year Awards in the national capital, Canberra, to recognise people who have made significant contributions or achievements. There are four categories: Australian of the Year, Senior Australian of the Year, Young Australian of the Year, and Australia’s Local Hero. In most cities, special citizenship ceremonies are also held for migrants wishing to become Australians. New arrivals are especially welcome to join Australia Day events and meet other Australians.
Anzac Day, 25 April, commemorates the brave but ultimately failed battle that was fought in 1915 by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps—the Anzacs—and other allied troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. The eight-month campaign which began on 25 April resulted in the deaths of an estimated 8700 Australians, who were either killed in action or died of wounds or diseases. Some of Australia’s most enduring values emerged from this experience: the Anzac ethos of courage, spirit and ‘mateship’. Anzac Day has been set aside in memory of those who fought for Australia and those who lost their lives in other wars and conflicts. The day is a national public holiday and is commemorated with ceremonies, the laying of wreaths, and military parades in all Australian cities and most country towns.
The Queen’s Birthday is celebrated on the second Monday of June in most states and territories and is a public holiday.
Labour Day (also known as Eight Hour Day) commemorates the granting of an eight-hour working day to stonemasons in the state of Victoria after they downed tools and marched on Parliament House to fight for improved working conditions. In what is generally regarded as a world first, they won the right to ‘eight hours work, eight hours rest and eight hours recreation’. The states and territories commemorate the day in different months of the year.
Melbourne Cup Day occurs on the first Tuesday of November each year. Most people, whether at work, school or home, stop and watch this world-famous horse race on television. The day is a public holiday in metropolitan Melbourne. In other cities, many people have a lunch or party in their workplaces to celebrate the running of the Cup and participate in modest betting sweeps.
Christmas and Easter, two of the most important dates in the Christian calendar, are observed with national public holidays throughout Australia. Christmas Day is on 25 December every year, while Easter falls between late March and April.
Other important events and dates that are not marked by public holidays include:
- International Women’s Day, 8 March, highlights women’s achievements and raises community awareness of issues that affect women. In addition to events organised by the Australian branch of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and other women’s organisations, many workplaces arrange activities to mark the day.
- Harmony Day, celebrated on 21 March, brings people together to promote Australian values and celebrate the Australian way of life through community events. Most Australian cities and towns organise activities that include Australians from all ethnic groups and walks of life.
- NAIDOC Week, held throughout Australia in the first week of July, celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The week is celebrated not just in Indigenous communities but also in many government agencies, schools, local councils and workplaces. The acronym NAIDOC was devised for the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee but has become the name of the event itself.
- Australian Citizenship Day, 17 September, provides an opportunity for all Australians to reflect on the meaning and importance of Australian citizenship and celebrate the values that unite the nation’s people.
- Carers Week, held in October, is coordinated by Carers Australia to promote and raise awareness of the valuable role that Australian carers play in the community by looking after and providing support for relatives or friends who have a disability. More than one in eight Australians provide such care.
- Remembrance Day, 11 November, marks the armistice that ended World War I. At 11 am on 11 November, Australia pauses for a minute’s silence to remember more than 60 000 Australians who died in World War I and the many others who have died or suffered in other wars and conflicts. Remembrance ceremonies are held throughout Australia.
- White Ribbon Day, which had its beginnings in Canada in 1991, aims to eliminate violence against women. In 1999, the United Nations General Assembly declared 25 November the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. The white ribbon has become the symbol for the day and, in 2006, more than 300 000 white ribbons were distributed at events throughout Australia.
Many towns and cities in Australia hold annual agricultural shows where rural producers, companies and local organisations showcase the country lifestyle and produce. The shows are important events in rural calendars and highlight the significant contribution that rural communities continue to make to Australia.
In the state of New South Wales alone, there are almost 200 agricultural show societies. But the shows are not limited to rural centres: Australia’s two biggest agricultural shows are held in Sydney and Melbourne.
Each year, these two shows attract hundreds of thousands of visitors, bringing the country to the city and giving city dwellers a glimpse of rural life.
Many country towns also conduct special fairs or festivals. For example, Grafton in northern New South Wales holds an annual Jacaranda Festival in late October under the many lilac blossomed trees growing in the town’s broad tree-lined avenues.
An important mainstay of Australian country life is the Country Women’s Association of Australia (CWAA), which has 35 000 members in 1500 branches. The CWAA serves in almost every country town and community across Australia. Its broad aim is to improve conditions for country women and children, especially in remote areas.
Most Australians love their sport and enjoy being participants or spectators. Around 6.5 million are registered as sports participants and just over 11 million Australians aged 15 or over undertake a physical activity at least once a week for exercise, recreation and sport.
Australians are also avid sports spectators. The Melbourne Cup brings the nation to a stop for a few minutes once a year, as most Australians pause to watch the famous horse race. Grand finals of winter sports such as Australian Rules Football, rugby league, rugby union and football attract up to 100 000 attendees as well as huge television audiences.
The Australian Rules Football grand final is a major community event, complete with a grand final parade through the city, a televised grand final breakfast, ‘live’ television sites in public places and training sessions open to the public.
Other major sports events include: the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, a 628-nautical mile course which is described as the most gruelling long ocean race in the world and which starts in Sydney every Boxing Day; Test Cricket matches in summer, including a major Test match in Melbourne that starts on Boxing Day and attracts huge crowds; the Australian Tennis Open, which is the first grand slam title of the calendar year; the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix, which is held on Phillip Island in Victoria every October; and the Australian Formula One Grand Prix, which is held in Melbourne every March.
Australians are generous donors to charities and humanitarian organisations such as the Australian Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Care Australia and the Smith Family. They also give freely to humanitarian organisations in times of natural disasters. Some agencies, such as the Salvation Army, conduct annual door-knock appeals.
Other groups hold annual events to raise funds and awareness for specific causes. Daffodil Day, usually held in August, aims to change attitudes to cancer and give hope and support to those affected by the disease. On Jeans for Genes Day, people throughout Australia are invited to wear jeans to work to raise funds for children’s medical research. The day is held on the first Friday in August each year. During Australia’s Biggest Morning Tea, usually held in May, more than one million Australians get together at work, in schools, in their homes and in the community for fund-raising morning teas for the Cancer Council.
Once a year Legacy, a uniquely Australian organisation, appeals to the public for funds to enable it to continue its work of looking after war widows and their dependants. Legacy was established in 1923 by ex-servicemen to care for the widows and dependants of their fallen comrades.
Pink Ribbon Day, held on the fourth Monday in October, raises funds for breast cancer research. It is coordinated by the National Breast Cancer Foundation.
Cultural events and festivals
Festivals have become ubiquitous in Australia. All Australian capital cities have a major festival, providing opportunities to bring international performers to Australian audiences and showcase Australian artists. There are also hundreds of smaller community-based local festivals and arts gatherings, as well as events based on specific themes such as film, folk and country music, jazz, digital media and writing.
Australia also hosts the annual Mardi Gras, one of the most colourful gay and lesbian events in the world, and the Croc Festival, an innovative performing arts and educational program for school students in regional and remote communities around Australia.
- New Year’s Day 1 January
- Australia Day 26 January
- Anzac Day 25 April
- Easter in March or April each year
- Christmas Day 25 December
- Boxing Day 26 December