As an expat I have been, for many years, a little like an overseas embassy, benefiting from both traditional Australian holidays and also those of my adopted country, the US. As both countries were settled by Europeans there are, to be sure, certain holidays that are shared by both: Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Easter and the inevitable commercial ones like Valentines and Halloween. But there are plenty of differences, and it is these holidays that I love.
For instance, here in America one of the first public holidays each year is Martin Luther King Day. Held every January on the 3rd Monday, this is a holiday in observance of the famous civil rights leader. As in Australia, public holidays largely fall within the state government’s jurisdiction, so it should come as no surprise that several US States chose not to celebrate this particular holiday at first. In fact, as mentioned in a previous post, the great Commonwealth of Virginia first tried to combine MLK Day with Lee-Jackson Day (a day celebrating two confederate war generals) until finally the extreme hypocrisy of recognizing this descendant of slaves on the same day as two men who were dedicated to preserving their right to keep his ancestors in bondage finally occurred to someone. It took the State of South Carolina 14 years to finally cave and recommend that its citizens take a day off from work, and this was the state that fired the first shots in the Civil War… agitators! As a famous black comedian once said, “how prejudiced do you really have to be to not take a day off from work? It could be KKK day and I would be at home watching TV with a beer.”
Not long after MLK Day is a day of particular note to Australians. Australia Day is celebrated on the 26th of January every year and commemorates the moment when eleven ships arrived in Sydney Harbor, and after rowing ashore stood amongst the scrubby gum trees and said, “Let’s see these cheeky buggers get back to England now!” Convict jokes aside, Australia Day is now a major celebration in the calendar and much general revelry does occur. Barbecues, sports games, family camping, fireworks and a plethora of eating are the usual methods of celebration (along with a few ”cans of piss”) for the discerning Ozzie. Almost immediately after Australia Day a celebration occurs on the other side of the world that is worthy of a mention, even though it is not strictly a public holiday. While Australians are eating copious amounts of meat and rolling cold cans of VB across their foreheads while saying things like “strewth,” the folks in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania are engaging in one of America’s more eccentric celebrations. Every February 2nd the good townspeople gather in the central square and listen to an over sized rodent called Phil tell them whether the spring will arrive early or not. It is safe to assume that this peculiar event was created after an unseasonably cold winter that left the townspeople suffering from some sort of extreme “cabin fever,” that and eating too many cheese steaks. I hear they have them for breakfast out there!
Another holiday that remains an important part of my yearly celebration rituals occurs on the 5th of May. Called Cinco de Mayo which means, funnily enough, the 5th of May, this holiday is not Mexican Independence Day but a celebration of Mexican heritage that is popular only in the States. Recognized celebrations involve supping on many Coronas (if you don’t know any better), Dos Equis (if you have a little more class than those drinking Coronas), and having more than your fair share of tequila. The evening will usually wind up with dancing around a hat – anyone’s will do – and yelling, “Ayyyyeeee Pappppie.”
Central to any American calendar is surely July 4th, or as it’s known in these parts, Independence Day. America’s version of Australia’s national day is, in many ways, strikingly similar save for one great exception; the music. I have always said that one of the things that has made America the preeminent superpower of the late 20th Century is its population’s unassailable sense that it is the freest, richest, sexiest, most interesting, most muscular and best looking country on earth. Fortunately it turns out that most Americans do not actually hold this world view, but those that do choose to display it musically on July 4th. In defense of this hypothesis, I submit the following,
”Ohhh Justice will be served
And the battle will rage
This big dog will fight
When you rattle his cage
And you’ll be sorry that you messed with
The U.S. of A.
‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass
It’s the American way.”
Last year Ashley, Lily and I attended the July 4th parade in Titusville, New Jersey. In addition to the wonderful community parade we saw Miss. Titusville waving from the back of a convertible, ate burgers and hotdogs, hung out in the street with friends and “shot the shit”, flew our flags and contributed to lots of general revelry (helped by the ice cold beers that my friend Dave carried in a backpack). I couldn’t help feeling that I was back home in Benalla, Australia celebrating the Rose Festival. This was the kind of celebration that I could really get behind, people genuinely happy to be together and celebrating their town and the strong bonds of community that it created. Later that evening Dave’s neighbor showed us a photo album of Titusville July 4th parades beginning in the 1950’s. It was clear from the way he spoke that this event, and the town that it celebrated, was very important to him and I found myself feeling envious of such deep roots and commitment to a community. This is what July 4th means to me, family, friends and community. After all, that it what America is really about, not Toby Keith’s gomer-esque stanza above. We plan to be present in Titusville again this July 4th.
One holiday that causes much confusion in America is the Queen’s Birthday holiday weekend in Australia. To be honest, this holiday causes considerable confusion in Australia as well. This confusion might well be caused by that fact that this weekend doesn’t even come close to the actual date of the Queen’s birthday. Elizabeth II’s birthday is on the 21st of April, whereas the Queen’s Birthday is celebrated in Australia on the second Monday in June. As far as I can understand it there is no specific reason behind this anomaly, save that it’s a convenient weekend to kick off Australia’s skiing season (who in America know that Australia actually had a skiing season, eh). It’s just like the Ozzies to be all practical about their leisure time.
The origins of Labor Day (or Labour Day if you are from the great southern land) are a mystery to many in both countries. Beginning as a commemoration of the Labor movement and the trade worker, it has involved into a useful marker to the end of summer in America, and another reason for a long weekend in Australia. Australia’s Labour Day in particular emerged from union victories in the early 20th century advocating for the audacious goal of eight hours of work, eight hours of recreation and eight hours of rest each day. Cheeky bastards! On this particular holiday I often wonder if the conservative politicos in each country are taking a day off, and whether they know that they are celebrating worker’s rights?
Finally, November brings two holidays that are, by far, the closest to my heart. In Australia it is Melbourne Cup Day on the second Tuesday and in America, Thanksgiving. I love the Melbourne Cup because only in Australia would it be possible for workers and students to take a day off for a horse race. When I was in school this was not a holiday. Instead the horse race was played over the loudspeaker, pumped into every classroom as we all looked at our tickets to see if we had picked the winner. It’s just like Australia to put gambling up on such a pedestal, the equine equivalent of candy cigarettes. Thanksgiving, in my opinion, is America’s greatest holiday. Never mind the sketchy beginnings involving pilgrims taking corn from the Native Americans and then killing them, this holiday is all about getting together with family and sharing a meal. Despite concerted efforts, there is very little commercialization (save for turkey farmers and autumn leaf-centerpiece-makers) and no present giving. It is all about being together, sharing food and spending time. It is the holiday that helps me to understand that this is, after all, what America values most, family.