Moomba: the dodgiest festival of them all

Labour Day is celebrated on different days in different states.  Today, it’s celebrated in Victoria, and also in Tasmania under the name of its earlier incarnation as Eight Hours Day.

There are many (including me) who lament the loss of the radical and working-class focus on this holiday, but I was surprised to learn today that the original Eight Hours Day was not celebrated on this weekend in any event.  The stonemasons of Melbourne achieved the eight hour day on April 21st 1856 and had their first celebration on 12 (or maybe 15th?) of May that year.  Subsequently it was celebrated on 21st April each year, and declared a public holiday in 1879.  However, over time May Day assumed more importance as an international labour celebration, and the increasing significance of Anzac Day on 25th April sidelined the Eight Hour Day celebration held four days earlier .  Numbers attending and viewing the Eight Hour Day procession declined after World War I  and the date of the public holiday was changed to March in 1927 ( I can’t find why- this excellent article here deals with Eight Hour Day between 1928-1935 but does not explain the change in date.)  The name ‘Eight Hours Day’ itself changed to ‘Labour Day’ in 1934.  The date was changed yet again in 1949 (and again, I don’t know why).

However, while it might be ‘Labour Day’ on the calendar,  for many Melburnians it’s better known as ‘Moomba weekend’.  This Moomba celebration is particularly auspicious because it is the sixtieth anniversary of this rather retro and often unloved procession.  However, as with much involving this ” invented tradition” (to use Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase), even the ’60 years’ date is dodgy, given that the first parade occurred in March 1955.

The name ‘Moomba’ is dodgy as well.  I had taken some pleasure in the story that Moomba actually means ‘up your bum’ in Koorie English.  ‘Moom’ certainly does mean ‘bum’ and is still in use in Victorian communities in that way today (e.g. ‘shift your moom’ when asking someone to move up).  Lin Onus, the son of Victorian Koorie elder Bill Onus claimed that his father had offered up the name as a joke when the idea of a commerce-backed parade (which Moomba certainly was originally) was first mooted, mischievously suggesting that the name meant ‘Let’s get together and have fun’.

However, even this rather subversive story seems to be dodgy as well. Lin Onus later tried to recant it, pointing out that his father had been instrumental in the staging of An Aboriginal Moomba: ‘Out of the Dark’ at the Princess Theatre on 23-27th June 1951 with an all-Aboriginal cast drawn from local and interstate communities.  The core dance group came from Cherbourg, where the term ‘moomba’ did have connations of show or celebration, and it is possible that Bill Onus and his wife Mary referenced this in naming the stage show and later offered it as the name for the planned Autumn festival.

The fact that there are to be seven floats today is being loudly trumpeted but as a child who grew up in the 1960s, the heyday of Moomba, that seems a particularly paltry offering.  It’s somewhat better, I suppose, than the tortured ‘community’ parades of recent years which seemed to involve a whole lot of kids either dressed up in stiff and embarrassing national costumes to mark their parents’ migrant origins, or the presence of every circus and dance school in Melbourne.  Fun if you were participating, I guess, but not really the sort of thing you’d want to line the footpath to watch.  You can read this rather celebratory history of Moomba as a downloadable PDF published under the auspices of  City of Melbourne here, or a rather more critical view of Moomba from 1985 here (try logging in through the State Library of Victoria)

As a child, I can remember going to Moomba, being lifted onto my father’s shoulders or pushed to the front of the crowd for a better view.  I can remember the smell of the brewery one year, and I’ve located some photos from 1961.

I’m mystified to know where we were standing.  I think that the domed church in the right hand corner of the Coles ‘horse’ float is Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Rathdowne Street, and certainly the terrace houses behind the parade look as if they are in Carlton.  The tall chimney perplexes me- the brewery wasn’t up there, was it?  The parade has changed its route on several occasions, especially as its popularity has declined.

We certainly loved it.  With the booming of the drums still throbbing in our ears, we’d come home from Moomba and make our own Moomba procession out in the street with billy-carts and bikes, wobbling along on paint-tin stilts and banging an old saucepan.  Seems all rather innocent and sweet now.

Anyway, happy Moomba!  Embrace the dodginess of it all and enjoy the holiday!

8 responses to “Moomba: the dodgiest festival of them all

  1. Oh dear, I am crushed, devastated, overcome with embarrassment: I’ve been teaching kids that Moomba celebrated the 8-hour day and now it seems I was wrong!

  2. artandarchitecturemainly

    The concept of Labour Day, as critically important as it was in Australian history, is likely to be ignored by right wing state and federal governments.

    Every news broadcast is filled with attacks on working families – penalty rates for weekend work may be abolished, abortion may be banned, retired citizens may soon have their houses counted in their health care provision, Melbourne port will be closed, TAFES are being closed one institution at a time, desperate refugees are being towed back out to sea in life rafts etc etc.

    I feel utterly ashamed of this nation.

  3. I thought Carlton too. It may well have been in Lygon Street with the parade passing by Trades Hall. Yes, it is a pity the original celebration’s meaning has been lost, but after seeing some of the parade on tv, I thought it was quite an improvement over years past and almost a multicultural parade. At the same time I thought, ‘let them eat cake’. The more entertaining distractions provided, the less thought and time given to serious matters, such as Hels describes above.

    • Yes- it is a particularly meaningless festival. Even the dubious concept of “Let’s Get Together and Have Fun” reveals its vacuity.
      I was wondering if the building with Trades Hall with the Eight Hour Day monument in front of it (the tall pole) but the towers seem to be of a different shape.

  4. BTW Have you seen inside the Trades Hall Building at the massive commemoration of the 8 hour day there? It’s brilliant.

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