Australia Day: What It Is and How to Celebrate It

australia day

The biggest national celebration in Australia, Australia Day falls right in the heart of the southern summer. Across the country, children stay out of school and everyone enjoys a free day with their friends and family.

Many take part in the many public celebrations and typically, everyone spends time outdoors, the Australian way — think barbecues in the backyard and a lazy afternoon at the beach.

Everyone is welcome to join. In fact, today’s Australia Day celebrates inclusivity and multiculturalism. However, not everyone knows the history and meaning of this day that was first established in the 19th century.

International travelers who applied for an Australian visa to visit the country Down Under may be wondering what it is all about. This article tries to clear some doubts including:

  • What is Australia Day? When was it first celebrated?
  • What are the events on Australia Day?
  • How do Aboriginal people celebrate it?

What Is Australia Day about?

Australia was first discovered by Western civilization in 1788, when the First Fleet of British ships landed in New South Wales and more precisely, at Port Jackson, Sydney. Governor Arthur Phillip then raised the Union Jack (the flag of the United Kingdom) at Sydney Cove.

What started as the remembrance of the beginning of the colony has evolved greatly over time. It often marked turning points in Australian society: from the moment Australian officially ceased to be British subjects to promoting reconciliation with the Indigenous people of the continent.

In general, it’s felt like an occasion to reflect on the country’s past and the direction as well as a moment to celebrate with pride what being Australian means — each year, as many as 16.000 people who were previously in the country thanks to an Australian visa choose this day to become new citizens.

Today’s Australia Day is all about the diversity of Australian society and the values of citizenship, community, and solidarity.

When Did Australia Day Start?

Although it started being called ‘Australia Day’ over a century later, celebrations on the 26th of January started being held as early as 1808, with the first official marking of the formation of New South Wales held in 1818. On New Year’s Day 1901, the British colonies of Australia formed a federation, marking the birth of modern Australia.

It took until 1994 to have the first unified public holiday across all territories and states. In 2005, a survey uncovered that the vast majority of Australian citizens (over 65%) anticipated that they would celebrate Australia Day.

Depending on the location and time of the commemoration, Australia Day has had many names throughout history including ‘Anniversary Day’, ‘Foundation Day’, and ‘ANA (Australian Natives’ Association) Day’.

What Day Is Australia Day on?

Ever since the early 19th century, Australia Day has been celebrated on the 26th of January.

Both before and after the institution of the national day of Australia on January the 26th, several proposals have been made to set a different date. There are different reasons why some people felt a change would be beneficiary. Many dates were considered (from January 1st to Anzac Day, which falls on April 25th). However, the decision must be made by the Federal Government in coordination with State Governments and so far, there’s not been enough political and public support for such a plan to move forward.

Australia Day Celebrations: What to Do

It’s hard to get bored on Australia Day. Every community celebrates with outdoor events and concerts, social barbecues, sports and arts competitions, festivals, firework shows, and more. In Sydney, popular boat races make the harbor the center of celebrations while Adelaide organizes a huge parade and concert in Elder Park. Perth boasts the greatest fireworks show of the day and Melbourne’s Voyages Concert and People’s March focus greatly on multiculturalism.

The National Australia Day Council organizes the largest events but there are also local committees and councils in each state and territory working on the celebrations.

A big part of the day is represented by citizenship ceremonies. Each year, thousands of people from over 100 countries pick this day to officially become new citizens.

Another tradition sees Australia Day as the perfect occasion to award high-achieving Australians. Here are some examples:

  • The Order of Australia awards are bestowed on this day
  • Local governments award the Australia Day Achievement Medallion to citizens who excelled in both government and non-government organizations
  • The Australian of the Year is announced in the evening by the Prime Minister.

Do Aboriginal people celebrate Australia Day?

Australia Day has become the one biggest civic event in the nation. However, the history of Australia did not start in the 18th century with the arrival of the British fleet.

Aboriginal peoples had been living on the land that we now call Australia for more than 60 thousand years. That is at least 1600 generations of Aboriginal communities inhabiting the country. It is extremely important to recognize this history.

The debate about changing the date has at times made some Indigenous Australian communities feel like they were not included in the celebrations. However, there are now many events held by Aboriginal organizations on this day, such as:

  • The Share the Spirit music festival in Melbourne
  • The Saltwater Freshwater Festival at 10 rotating locations in NSW
  • Many communities hold Survival ceremonies to celebrate the survival of their traditions and culture.

The Australian government and the general public are becoming increasingly more aware of the significance that this day has for Aboriginal people and their identity. A 2009 survey reported that 90% of Australians believed that “it was important to recognize Australia’s indigenous people and culture” as part of Australia Day celebrations. A similar proportion (89%) agreed that “it is important to recognize the cultural diversity of the nation”. Today, reconciliation is a crucial part of official celebrations.