Some traditions shortlived

Geelong Advertiser, Saturday 5 January 2008, p. 31.

The turn of the year is a time to take stock. But why? What is it about certain dates or events which cause us to set them apart to be celebrated, commemorated or marked with some ceremony or recapitulation?

Our ancestors have been doing it for aeons. Ancient monuments like the pyramids and Stonehenge were constructed to focus on a specific point in the solar or lunar calendar. The various phases of the agricultural year provided a reason to hold feasts and festivals, which helped tide you through to the next, perhaps. Many religions mark particular events in their founding stories or myths. Birthdays have been around for long enough.

Now one of the drivers is commercialism. Our manufacturers and retailers just love special days which they have either invented or certainly promoted—Boxing Day sales being one. Many businesses do over half their business in a few weeks leading up to and immediately after Christmas. The shortness of popular memory enables them to claim these things are traditional, though often the way they fit into the calendar today is of very recent origin.

What of the traditional Boxing Day test match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground or the Anzac Day blockbuster at the footy? Since when did these games become traditional? In 1990 the Melbourne test match against Pakistan was played in mid-January. Collingwood versus Essendon on 25 April is an even more recent innovation.

Sporting bodies play lip service to their history for much of the time. When the AFL decided it needed to mark the first games of what later became Australian Rules in 1858 they initially intended to commission a scholarly history of the code. But very soon they realised that might be a critical exercise which would point out some inconvenient features of the game’s development so they decided on a celebratory exercise instead. So watch what happens this year as the match between Melbourne Grammar School and Scotch College in 1858 is commemorated though it was not played under Australian Rules at all and was not a club game.

Frank Lowy and his cohorts have changed the face of the round ball game in Australia and for a while they wanted to break completely with their past. Now they are becoming more self-confident about the A-League and the value of the Socceroos as the flagship of the code. So they turn back to celebrating the award of caps starting with Alex Gibb who captained the first Australian international team which took on New Zealand in Dunedin in 1922.

In cricket a hundred runs is greeted as a major milestone. As Mark Taylor said a propos of Sachin Tendulkar’s recent propensity to get out in the 90s, three times on 99, ‘It is only one run, but it is worth so much more!’ But why? What about the poor bowlers? They have had the very rare ‘hat-tricks’ for long enough, so they have had to invent ‘5-for’ as a celebration of their own prowess.

So it seems we have a penchant for marking events and taking stock, but the things we use are not always set in stone and change as our perspective or our needs alter. Perhaps that is no bad thing, but it should make us a bit more careful or aware of the ways in which we are using our notions of the past.

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