Commonwealth Day

Second Monday in March
March 12, 2012

Here’s a geography quiz:

1. What is the official language of Belize?

2. Whose portrait adorns the Canadian loonie?

3. What comprises 53 countries, covers over a fifth of the world’s land area, and accounts for 2 billion of the earth’s population?

If you answered

  1. English.
  2. Queen Elizabeth II
  3. The British Commonwealth

you got 1 and 2 right. The word ‘British’ was axed from The Commonwealth to reflect the fact that 98% of its subjects are not British at all, and 93% of the Commonwealth’s population live in Asia and Africa.

Today because of British influence in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, English is an official language of over 50 countries, including India, Pakistan, Nigeria, the Philippines, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Madagascar, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Liberia, Jamaica, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, The Gambia, Mauritius, Swaziland, Trinidad and Tobago, Fiji, Guyana, the Solomon Islands, Malta, the Bahamas, Barbados, Vanuatu, Micronesia, Kiribati, Grenada, Seychelles, Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, Marshall Islands, Palau and Nauru. (Note: not all the above are in the Commonwealth.)

Views around the web on Commonwealth Day…

Our integration with our continental neighbours has had the effect of weakening our ties with our Commonwealth friends.


…a staggering 1,921,974,000 people around the world will be celebrating Commonwealth Day, unless that is you’re British. We Brits it seems still suffer from an imperialist hangover, too embarrassed (dare I say ashamed?)…


The origins of Commonwealth Day date back to 1898 when Clementina Trenholme, author and social organiser, introduced Empire Day in Canadian schools on the last school day before May 24, Queen Victoria’s birthday…In 1958 Empire Day was renamed Commonwealth Day, in accordance with the new post-colonial relationship between the nations of the former empire…


Australia Day

January 26

On January 26, 1808 Major George Johnston led his men to the residence of Governor William Bligh and forcibly relieved him of his post. This remains the only successful coup by force in Australia’s history.

(You may remember Charles Laughton’s portrayal of the lovable, kooky Captain Bligh in 1935’s Best Picture “Mutiny on the Bounty” which portrayed the crew’s slapstick romp through the South Pacific.)

But that’s not why they celebrate. In fact the first recorded celebration of Australia day was 200 years ago, on January 25, 1808, the night before the coup. They called it First Landing or Foundation Day. It marked the 20th anniversary of the landing of British ships in what is now Sydney, with the purpose of setting up a permanent penal colony for the Bad Boys of Britain.

Sydney Bridge
Sydney, Australia

24 year-old George Johnston was the first officer to set foot on Sydney Cove sand that day. According to legend (ie. Wikipedia) he was so ill from the boat trip, he had to be carried on the back of convict James Ruse. Ruse had been sentenced to death back in England for stealing two watches. This was later commuted to 7 years in Australia. Ruse became Australia’s first successful European farmer.

from The Birth of Sydney…<

“The grant of land made to him by Governor Phillip in 1792 was the first act in a tragedy of dispossession for Aboriginal Australia. It would take 200 years exactly for the country to acknowledge that Phillip’s declaration was a sham.”

The 1789 London Morning Herald had a different take on the budding colony:

“The settlement we are making at Botany or rather Jackson’s Bay reminds us of the origin of the Roman Empire, which sprang out of a nest of robbers…The thief colony may hereafter become a great empire, whose nobles will probably, like those of the nobles of Rome and other empires, boast of their blood.”

The report prophesied correctly: Australians are a patriotic bunch, more so in recent years. But even today 1 in 4 Australians was born in another country. And 2 in 5 have at least 1 parent born abroad.

Heavy immigration has not been without conflict. In 2005, riots in the beachside suburbs of Cronulla targeted Middle-Eastern immigrants. It was the first riot to be fueled by text messaging.

This year Australia pays tribute to a couple whose heroism will be remembered for days to come. Lorraine and Robert Steel were honored (I mean honoured) with Order of Australia medals in part for their creation of the Parkes Elvis Festival in western New South Wales.

“January’s been very quiet in Parkes and we thought that we would do something to liven up living in Parkes in January to give us some business and hopefully to give business to our local motels and eatery.”

It’s now the world’s biggest Elvis festival, holding the Guinness World Record for most Elvis impersonators in a single place.
Australia Day History
Survival Day

Birthday of the King: Elvis

January 8

The Mississippi Delta was shining
Like a National guitar,
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the civil war,

I’m going to Graceland, Graceland
In Memphis Tennessee…
…I’ve reason to believe
We both will be received
In Graceland

Paul Simon, Graceland

Today is the birthday of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll Elvis Presley. Though not an official holiday in any nation, it is observed throughout the world.

Elvis statue Elvis worshipper

(Above: the author praises the King in Memphis, Tennessee)

The focal point of the celebration is Graceland, Elvis’s former home in Memphis, Tennessee. Festivities begin each year with a gospel tribute at the Gates of Graceland at midnight.

Graceland was not named by Elvis, but by the original owner S.E. Toof after his daughter Grace.

Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi. At age 13 the Presley family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where Elvis lived for most of his life.

In 1957 the 22 year-old superstar purchased the Graceland mansion in Memphis. He was proud to move his parents into it, a long way from the two-room house where Elvis was raised. His mother Gladys died the following year.

Graceland living room

Early viewers of Elvis’s concerts, such as rock legend Roy Orbison, cite his instinct and incredible energy as a performer as separating him from the artists before him. It is difficult to convey the novelty of Elvis after the half-century of imitations and changes that followed. Various morality groups assailed him for his “vulgar” and “obscene” music and movements on stage.

His discoverer, Sam Phillipsof Sun Studios, said Elvis “put every ounce of emotion…into every song, almost as if he was incapable of holding back.”

When Elvis first entered the Sun Studios, receptionist Marion Keisker asked him who he sounded like. He is reported to have said “I don’t sound like nobody.”

While this was true in mainstream radio, Elvis was heavily influenced by the black gospel singers he had seen at Memphis’ Ellis Auditorium and black blues performers in the clubs along Beale Street.

Stories make it sound like Elvis walked into Sun Studios and the rest is history, but in fact, after his first recording in 1953, Elvis politely hassled Sam Phillips for a year—while working as a truck driver—before Sam teamed him up with bassist Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore. The three recorded a high-energy version of black R&B artist Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right, Mama” in July and the single was released that month. Some white disc jockeys refused to play Elvis’ music at first, believing Elvis was black.

In January 1956 RCA released Heartbreak Hotel, co-written by a part-time Florida schoolteacher Mae Boren Axton, who was inspired by the newspaper epitaph of a suicide victim: “I walk a lonely street.”

Heartbreak Hotel slowly and steadily climbed the charts, entering at #1 68 in March, and making its way to #1 in May.

Elvis the #1 Hits: The Secret History of the Classics

Though Graceland is considered the musical Mecca for Elvis fans, do not miss Sun Studios just to the east on Union Avenue, for a more in-depth historically revealing tour about Elvis and Memphis music history.

Boxing Day

December 26

St. Stephen

“In London and other places, St. Stephen’s Day, or the 26th of December, is familiarly known as Boxing-day, from its being the occasion on which those annual guerdons known as Christmas-boxes are solicited and collected…

The Book of Days

As a child I thought it odd that the British, so seemingly refined (compared to us their American cousins), would dedicate the day after Christmas to such a brutal and pugilistic sport. Yet there it was on the calendar: “Boxing Day – UK”.

Apparently the holiday has very little to do with the sport, but everything to do with gift-giving. And no, it’s not about boxing up all the gifts you don’t want so you can return them to the store either.

According to The Book of Days (1882)…

“The institution of Christmas-boxes is evidently akin to that of New-year’s gifts, and, like it, has descended to us from the times of the ancient Romans, who, at the season of the Saturnalia, practised universally the custom of giving and receiving presents. The fathers of the church denounced, on the ground of its pagan origin, the observance of such a usage by the Christians; but their anathemas had little practical effect, and in process of time, the custom of Christmas-boxes and New-year’s gifts, like others adopted from the heathen, attained the position of a universally recognised institution. The church herself has even got the credit of originating the practice of Christmas-boxes…

“…Christmas-boxes are still regularly expected by the postman, the lamplighter, the dustman, and generally by all those functionaries who render services to the public at large, without receiving payment therefor from any particular individual. There is also a very general custom at the Christmas season, of masters presenting their clerks, apprentices, and other employes, with little gifts, either in money or kind.

“St. Stephen’s Day, or the 26th of December, being the customary day for the claimants of Christmas-boxes going their rounds, it has received popularly the designation of Boxing-day.”

Boxing-night was a night of much joy and revelry. The Book of Days goes on to tell us that “the theatres are almost universally crowded to the ceiling on Boxing-night” as the pockets of the working class are stuffed with recently received year-end bonuses.

You can also find some packed pubs and bars on Boxing Day, as celebrants, having spent 24-48 hours with family, join their friends to bid a fond farewell to the Christmas season, if not the Christmas spirit.

[Of course , Boxing Day is actually only the second day of the twelve days of Christmas, so the season doesn’t technically end until Epiphany on January 6.]

Mabo Day – Australia

On May 27, 1967, the Australian public voted to alter the language of the Constitution to remove discriminatory laws against the indigenous people.

One such Constitutional clause had previously declared:

“In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted.”

Still, even decades after this sweeping reform, the Australian court held to a policy known as Terra Nullius. Terra Nullius was the doctrine that insisted that the occupation of the Australian continent did not occur until after European ‘discovery’ and colonialization. This historical whoops now generally estimated to be about 40,000 years off. It wasn’t overturned until the last decade of the 20th century, on June 3, 1992, in the extraordinary case of Eddie Mabo.

Eddie Mabo - Mabo Day

Born on the island of Mer in the Torres Strait in Queensland, Mabo was working as a gardener and groundskeeper at James Cook University when he was denied passage back to his birth island during a trip to visit his ailing father. Mabo took on the aged Australian albatross of indigenous landrights disputes. While pursuing a teaching degree (in his 40’s) Mabo waged a decade-long legal battle confronting the fallacy of Terra Nullius. He took his case all the way to the highest court in the land.

“The Mabo decision is arguably the most important decision that the High Court of Australia has made since Federation. It states Indigenous people have Legal Rights not just Symbolic Rights to all Crown Land in this country, as well as possible rights to pastoral leases. Mabo Day marked the beginning of a new era for Indigenous people. It changed Australian’s views of themselves and their rights to this land. It has forced mining companies and the corporate world to take stock of Indigenous peoples’ claims. It has radically altered the relationship between Indigenous and non Indigenous people in this country.”

Though Mabo Day is not an official holiday in Australia, the week from May 27 to June 3 is now known as Reconciliation Week. It is a week meant to encourage dialogue and help mend centuries of injustice against the nation’s indigenous people and to foster healing between Australia’s diverse communities.

Sorry Day – Australia

May 26

That’s the difference between the UN and Australia. The UN would have called it “Day of Remembrance and Apologies for Injustices committed upon Indigenous Peoples” or something longer. Australians cut to the bone.

There are a number of things to be sorry about with regards to treatment of Australia’s Aborigine population, but Sorry Day focuses mostly on one particularly terrifying aspect—the taking of Aboriginal children from their families in an ill-conceived ‘re-education’ project during the early-to-mid 20th century.

Between 1910 and 1970 an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island children were removed from their homes, in what amounted to essentially legally-sanctioned kidnappings. The full scope of the project and its failure were the subject of a government investigation in the 1990s.

Accounts of the “Stolen Generations” have inspired numerous books, plays, and movies, including Doris Pilkington’s 1996 novel Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence and its 2002 film adaptation Rabbit-Proof Fence.

The results of the government investigation were released in the “Bringing Them Home” report, which was published on May 26, 1997.

The publication of “Bringing Them Home” coincided with another anniversary: the 30th anniversary of the Referendum of May 27, 1967, in which 90% of the Australian public voted to alter the language of the Constitution to remove discriminatory laws against indigenous people.

Henceforth, the week from May 27 to June 3 became Reconciliation Week in Australia.

Our friends Down Under tell us that Sorry Day is no longer an annual observance, but Reconciliation Week is. It is a week meant to encourage dialogue and help mend centuries of injustice against the nation’s indigenous population.


April 25

Last month the nation of Turkey remembered Victory of Canakkale, the World War I campaign that unified the Turkish spirt and brought together disparate elements that would form the Turkish nation.

But for every victor there’s the vanquished.

The Allies of World War I, including the French, British, Indian, Australian and New Zealanders, suffered a quarter million casualties in the Dardanelles (Canakkale) campaign. At the forefront of the battle, the soldiers of Australia and New Zealand took a disproportional brunt of the death and disease that characterized the fight.

ANZAC stands for Australia and New Zealand Army Corps. ANZAC Day falls on the anniversary of the landing of the first Australian and New Zealand troops on April 25, 1915 on the Gallipoli Peninsula on Turkey’s Aegean coast. The assault was ill-planned and inadequately supplied.

The Turks entrenched themselves on the high ground pouring artillery and machine gun fire down upon the hapless Australian, New Zealand, Irish, French and British troops below.The battleground soon resembled that of the Western Front – both sides peering at each other from fortified trenches, forced to spill their precious blood in futile frontal attacks on well defended positions. —

In the aftermath of Gallipoli a rift widened between the two southern hemisphere countries and the British Empire they had been proud to be a part of. Resentment grew against Allied commanders for the ill-conceived attack that led Australians and New Zealanders like lambs to the slaughter, and for the motives involved in using Australian and New Zealand troops to invade the far-off lands.

About 40 per cent of all Australian males aged between 18 and 45 voluntarily enlisted to serve in the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF), that is about 417,000 men, of whom about 60 000 died in all campaigns and another 160,000 were wounded or maimed. — Geoffrey Partington, Gallipoli – the Facts Behind the Myths

[Still, Partington clarifies, “the British, French and Indian causalities were far greater than those of the Anzacs,” and “the British bore the brunt of the fighting – and the losses.”]

ANZAC Day is one of the most important holidays in both Australia and New Zealand, observed as Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day.

“On Anzac Day, we remember not only the original Anzacs who died on April 25, 1915, but every one of our service men and women who have served and died in all wars, conflicts, peacekeeping, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance missions,” — Australia Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston

For the record, Victory of Canakkale is no celebration in Turkey. It’s also known as “Martyrs’ Day”. The Turks suffered even more casualties than the Allies, around 300,000, in the brutal Dardanelles campaign alone. Today, the monuments and memorials of Gallipoli serve as a grim reminder that in war even the winners pay the price.

ANZAC Memorial, Sydney. Photo by Matthew Lammers