One of the highlights of each year when I was a child was Empire Day. I am sure every person of around my vintage has very strong memories of this day and celebration. The day was commemorated on 24 May, which had been Queen Victoria's birthday, and was instituted soon after her death in the early 1900's. The main idea seems to have been to encourage all the children throughout the old British Empire to be reminded of their rights and responsibilities as its citizens, to reflect on their "glorious heritage", and to think of their fellow citizens throughout the world living in those countries that were coloured red in their atlases.
We would turn up at school that day equipped with red, white and blue ribbons, which we would attach to ourselves using a safety pin and a special red, white and blue card that was specially issued that day for every child.
There would be special assemblies and ceremonies, with marching, saluting of flags, often speeches by local dignitaries and MP's, and singing of national anthems and patriotic songs like ' Land of Hope and Glory.'. Even our school milk came with a special red. white and blue foil top on that day.
We took it very seriously. It may not seem very politically correct today, but I can tell you that our school had a large number of pupils whose families had come from Greece and other European countries, and they joined in with every bit as much enthusiasm as those of British stock!
Our reward for our fervent expressions of patriotic pride and loyalty to the 'red, white and blue' was a half-day holiday.
That afternoon we became normal exuberant children once again as we turned our attention to the real focus of the day - Cracker Night!
For weeks I would have been saving my pocket money, and even doing extra jobs to earn a few bonus shillings. Every penny was directed to buying a wonderful stock of fireworks. Sometimes on that afternoon, our parents would slip us a few extra coins to complete our little treasure trove. The children of our neighbourhood would often get together to compare our stash. There would be fireworks with wonderful names like Golden Rain, Roman Candles, CrackerJacks, Mt Vesuvius, Catherine wheels. Tom Thumbs and Double Bungers. And of course there were always one or two "Rockets" - a little dearer than the others - which would be kept for the Grand Finale. Now the Tom Thumbs were very tiny crackers which were strung together in bundles of about 40, and I distinctly recall separating these to increase my actual total of crackers.
Some years we managed a big bonfire with a 'Guy' on top of the woodpile. We lived in one of a block of flats with two up and two down. There were around a dozen of these blocks in a row, with one enormous backyard stretching behind them, so our preparations were often a community effort. But I do remember that my mother, very familiar with 'Guy Fawkes" celebrations in England, always helped us out a great deal in supplying clothes and stuffing for our 'guy'.
When nightfall finally arrived, the excitement had reached a real crescendo. It took a bit of restraint from our parents to enable us to string things out a bit, so the firework stash did not all go off in a puff of smoke too quickly. The younger ones among us needed our father's help with the rockets, and the double bungers were definitely left to the boys, because they were noisy rather than pretty. And the boys used to do awful things with them, like putting them in letter boxes or throwing them at girls - and sometimes tying them to the dog's tail! The boys, meanwhile, disdained the sparklers that were particularly enjoyed by the girls and small children. These are the only fireworks we now have access to!! My mother used to produce home made toffee and make cocoa, to add to the festivity of the occasion, and sometimes family friends and relatives would be invited round for the evening.
By the late 50's the world had begun to change. Empire Day became 'British Commonwealth Day', then just 'Commonwealth Day', the half holiday was dispensed with, and the whole commemoration was moved to the Queen's Birthday holiday in June.
Cracker night continued for a while, until it was decided by the authorities, in their wisdom, that irresponsible use and abuse issues with fireworks meant that we were no longer to be trusted with them, and our enjoyment would now be restricted to public displays and spectacles. Our Bonfire or Cracker night displays were pretty tame when you compare them with million spectacles over a city and harbour, but at least it was 'hands-on' and 'home-grown.'
It is true that there were occasional injuries, accidents and fires, and sometimes the fireworks were used for the wrong purpose. But hey! I heard last night there are over 60 alcohol-related deaths in Australia every week. I do feel sorry for today's children who have missed out on the sheer joy of a home-based Cracker night.
Most of Australia celebrated the Queen's Birthday yesterday. Norfolk Island usually has the holiday a week later. That is because yesterday was a far more important day for us as Norfolk Island people. It was our Bounty Day, a day when those of us who love this island really celebrate our pride in our heritage and history on this little far-flung outpost of the Britsh Empire!