Public holidays seem to fall into two classes. There are those that still have important symbolic meanings -- Canada Day and Australia Day are days to celebrate a nation; Christmas is... well, it's complicated, but it's certainly fraught with meaning.
Other holidays are primarily a day off work. Few of us really care about Queen Victoria's birthday, or that striking printers helped found the modern labour movement that we celebrate at the beginning of September.
In Australia, April 25 falls squarely into the former category.
April 25 is Anzac Day, and in Australia it seems to outrank Nov 11 as a day of military commemoration. It marks the beginning of the Battle of Gallipoli campaign, which was launched on April 25, 1915, and which dragged on for months before the British and Empire troops finally withdrew from the peninsula on Turkey's coast in late 1915 and early 1916. It cost tens of thousands of lives -- 28,000 dead and wounded from Australia alone. The campaign killed or injured 336,000 men on both sides, with that many again ravaged by diseases like dysentry and typhoid. It was a typical First World War cockup.
Anzac Day is traditionally marked with one of several services, the first of which is held at dawn. At Gallipoli itself, an estimated 8,000 people gathered this year for the dawn service, most of them waiting all night for the service to begin. It has been described as a pilgrimage and a rite of passage for a young Australian to attend the dawn service in Turkey.
In order to fully embrace our year in Australia, I decided that I would go to one of the dawn services. I left it up to the rest of the family to decide if they wanted to go, and much to my surprise everyone but Ana said they would come, too.
We chose to go to Coolum, since our friend Jackie's son, Josh, was playing in the drum corps at that service. I figured we would be part of a small crowd there -- a few hundred people at most. After all, why would anyone get up at 4 a.m. when they could go to a similar service at 10 a.m.?
It turns out I was quite wrong. We were still nearly a kilometre from the cenotaph when I began to see cars parked at the side of the road. It was 5:00, and as we got closer we could see that both sides of the road were thick with cars, and the parking lots were overflowing. There were cyclists and walkers coming from town, and hundreds of people already standing in the darkness. As we parked and walked to the cenotaph, we figured there were well over a thousand people there; by the time the service started, there were over 2,000, all of us there to mark the 94th anniversary of a battle that took place in a spot I probably couldn't find on a map.
Of course, it wasn't just about Gallipoli, or even about the first world war. In Australian mythology, that battle is now seen as marking the beginning of true nationhood, the first time Australians fought as Australians, and the first time they began to see that their interests were not necessarily the same as British interests. (ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, a unit that was created just before Gallipoli began and disbanded shortly after.)
It's also a day to celebrate the work, sacrifices and achievements of all "Diggers", as Australians call their troops. The speaker at the service in Coolum was a veteran of the Vietnam war; in the days leading up to Anzac Day the t.v. stations ran greetings from Diggers stationed in East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other hotspots. It may be partly because of those conflicts that Anzac Day services have actually been growing larger in recent years, as people find new meaning in a ritual that honours a job their friends and relatives are doing. It may also be a matter of renewed nationalism, self-conscious mythologizing, or just plain old post-modern hero-seeking.
The service itself was similar to many Remembrance Day services I've attended -- the minute of silence, the playing of the Last Post, the sometimes dull and long-winded speeches. The high point of the service came right at the beginning. As we stood there under the streetlights, we could hear a bass drum thumping in the distance, telling the marchers it was time to parade to the cenotaph. As it came closer, we could pick up snare drums as well, tapping out a rhythm. Then there was another sound like distant rain, the sound of people clapping. The marchers came closer, and we joined in the clapping -- not applauding the drummers, but the people shuffling along behind them. They were the Diggers, grey old veterans of WWII, retirees who had fought in Vietnam, a smattering of younger men and women my own age, and even a couple of children wearing the medals of a father or an uncle. As they walked by, every person there applauded appreciatively. Nobody had told them to, nobody had said "let's give our Diggers a clap." It was spontaneous, heartfelt and moving, a community coming out in the dark to thank the people who had gone to war.