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Celebrate vs Commemorate

Updated: Mar 18

Have you ever asked your students whether they celebrate or commemorate Australia Day?


Australia Day is an official celebration on the 26th of January. It marks the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet into Sydney Cove and the raising of the Union Jack flag by Arthur Philip to claim Australia for the British Empire. Since 1994, the 26th of January has been a public holiday across all of Australia. It is used to present the Australian of the Year Award and announce the Australia Day Honors List which celebrates those members of the community who have contributed to the betterment of Australia's culture, economy, sciences or arts.

Yet, in contemporary society, Australia Day is known as ‘Invasion Day’ or ‘Day of Mourning’, as it marks the beginning of colonisation in Australia. The start of state-sanctioned genocide against its indigenous people in the oncoming centuries. An estimated 1 to 1.5 million First Nations People lived in Australia at the time of Arthur Phillips arrival, but by the time of Federation in 1901, disease and massacres saw just 100,000 remaining.

On January 26th 1938, Yorta Yorta man William Cooper and members of the Aboriginal Progressive association held the first Day of Mourning and Protest in Sydney. More than 1000 First Nations People wanted to shine a light on the true history of Australia and the pain Arthur Phillips' arrival caused by participating in a silent march through the streets of Sydney. In 2020 more than 100,000 people took part in Mourning Day protests as a sign of solidarity with First Nations People and in commiseration of their loss rather than celebration of white supremacy.

This idea of commemoration has been a common theme in a number of recent children’s books such as ‘Common Wealth’ and ‘Day Break’. They share with readers the notion that Australia Day is not a celebration and a fun festival of joy, instead for them the 26th of January is a day of recognition, remembrance and commiseration as they empathise with others and expressing sorrow for their loss.

Both ‘Common Wealth’ by Gregg Dreise and ‘Day Break’ by Amy McQuire are notable books in the 2022 Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) awards and the team at Learn From Play has made activities to share both books with your students. They illustrate how Australia Day is viewed, by many members of the Australian community, as a day of mourning rather than of joy. While neither book made it to the shortlist both allow teachers to initiate class discussion with students from Kindergarten to Year 12 on what it means to be Australian, what they feel Australia Day is and should be and how words make a difference. So… Do your students celebrate or commemorate Australia Day?

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