January 26th is Australia Day, and the whole country celebrates.
In public parks and town centres mayors conduct citizenship ceremonies, bands play, local artists sing 'Advance Australia Fair', banks of barbies sizzle and smoke, service clubs discover yet more innovative ways to raise money, and many museums and galleries are open free. It's party time, and the whole country parties.
The Prime Minister announces the Australian of the Year ¾ top item on the six o'clock news, and in Sydney, for just $10, you can ride all day on all the buses, trains and harbour ferries.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, more than 2 million citizens of New South Wales participate in the celebrations each year. If you're anywhere near Sydney Harbour on Australia Day, you'll believe them.
There's a national Australia Day Commission, and the NSW government sends official ambassadors to more than 100 celebrations in city and country communities throughout the state.
In Oamaru-sized Bega, NSW, a few days before the big event, shop keepers were putting up posters announcing a full day of celebrations, and the state's ambassador, sharing top billing with the mayor, was Sir Jack Brabham.
In Berrima, a picture-postcard township in the Southern Highlands an hour and a half from Sydney, tents and stalls were going up on the village square, and in the nearby Surveyor General's Inn ("The oldest continuously-licensed hotel in Australia") there was a holiday-mood, Wanaka-on-New-Year's-eve buzz.
The contrast with New Zealand's national day couldn't be greater.
Here in Central Otago, and throughout most of New Zealand, Waitangi Day is just another holiday. When it falls on a Saturday or Sunday, it's not even that. If it weren't for whatever happens at Waitangi itself, and for events at Otakou and Okains Bay, it would pass almost completely unmarked.
Sure, it's not a day that everyone feels inclined to celebrate. Even in Australia, where the indigenous culture has all but disappeared under a tide of European and recent Asian immigration, there are Aboriginal protests. As the Sydney Morning Herald's Sebastian Smee rather delicately wrote (in one paragraph of a half-page story) "Australia Day, it needs to be said, is an ambivalent sort of day (to put it mildly) for Australia's Aboriginal population …".
Perhaps we ignore our national day because we're also, most of us, ambivalent about our colonial history. My guess is that we won't happily and whole-heartedly celebrate our day, the way the Aussies do theirs, until we are all more at ease, more comfortable, and more certain about what it actually means.
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