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How the first become forgotten

Traditions of Australia's forgotten past exist but escape the majority gaze

Basel carnival photo

At 3:59 am, sleep-deprived from a train journey that began at 12am, I stood shivering amongst the streets of Basel, Switzerland. Spirits were high after witnessing an entire city shuffle down the streets in pyjamas for this UNESCO-listed cultural festival.

At 4am, all the lights flicked off. The city hushed, holding its breath in the darkness.

From the distance, a choir of piccolo shrieks and rumbling drumbeats could be  heard. A parade of floating lanterns bobbed towards us, their carriers’ bodies in darkness. It was an odd sight to witness, made more curious by the incomprehensible German propaganda scrawled over the lanterns. They displayed contemporary culture, political agendas and, of course, what’s a modern parade nowadays without a grossly cartoonified print of Trump.

As the parade snaked its way around the city, it would pause at certain locations. That’s when you could notice details of the paraders, their head-masks morphed by shadows from the pale illumination of lanterns. Grotesquely large head-masks leered at you, disproportionate to the performers’ thinner frames, freakishly alien when accompanying the shrieking piccolos.The wintry night pulsed with an energy; the performers a single organism compelled to continue a 600 year old tradition that will persevere in spite of human discomforts.

It was a frenzy that did not stop, even in 8am daylight. Fasnacht is a festival that begins at 4am, on the Monday after Ash Wednesday, and continues until 4am Wednesday in an ecstasy of lights, music, dancing, and drinking. Although no one is clear on how it originated, pagan festivities celebrating the expulsion of winter have been traced back to the 14th century. One of the earliest records dates back to Ash Wednesday in 1376, when a bloody revolt between citizens and knights took place during a jousting tournament. 12 citizens were executed as retribution. Although the nobility tried to abolish it over the following centuries in fear that the festival promoted systemic criticism, citizens in closed-off guilds would still play tricks to mock or protest against their rulers in the safety of their guises. During the Reformation in 1529, it was decided that the Carnival would be moved on the Monday following Ash Wednesday after the obligation to fast fell away. To this day, Fasnacht in Basel is the only Protestant carnival in the world. Its esoteric beginnings do not subdue the vibrance with which it is celebrated.

As an Australian, I cannot help but reflect on differences in tradition with my settler-colonial country. My first reaction was to dismiss Australia’s culture as comprised only of derivatives, or second-hand traditions brought by immigrants that have slowly adapted themselves to the Australian context. In spite of Australia’s pride in being an intersection of international cultures, there does not appear to be any “national” traditions dating back more than a few hundred years to name.

And yet, there are traditions dating back tens of thousands of years in Australia — they are just not ubiquitously known. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities still live out rich cultural heritage, as the world’s oldest civilisation dating back at least 58,000 years. However, they have been subjected to centuries of subjugation, with a rather explicit aim of erasing their cultural identity — a far cry from Basel’s enshrined Protestant traditions.

Cultural erasure only intensifies beyond Australia’s borders: most Europeans I’ve spoken to have little awareness of First Nations Peoples. There is an irony in the fact that Sydney has many easily locatable ethnocentric suburbs, frequented for their specific culture, and yet there is almost no cultural awareness of who the land’s owners were and still are outside of their communities. As a 2nd-generation Chinese immigrant, I am proud that traditions such as the Chinese New Year are widely celebrated in Australia. Moreover, through public events, all ethnicities become aware and involved in these traditions. Conversely, I can barely name a handful of Aboriginal traditions.

Ex-Prime Minister Keating’s ‘Redfern Speech’ recognised that ‘as complex (as) our contemporary identity is, it cannot be separated from Aboriginal Australia’. This was in 1994 – and although policy efforts have been made since, the very fact that in 2018, only two of the seven ‘Closing the Gap’ initiatives were on track is a testament to the fact that more action needs to be taken, from top-down and bottom-up. Going to university right next to a suburb with a prominent Aboriginal community, I am ashamed that my knowledge of Aboriginal traditions hardly extends beyond the Dreamtime. Whilst attending festivals overseas is culturally broadening, I have come to realise that as Australians, we have a responsibility to also look towards our own First Peoples, learn of their traditions and celebrate them as part of our country’s culture. Until then, Australia cannot be praised as truly multicultural if it doesn’t include the rightful owners of the land.