How Australian Traditions Work

Ned Kelly is a national folk hero in Australia.
Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

G'day, mate!

You didn't think we could start an article about Australian traditions without the ubiquitous greeting of the continent, did you? While that tradition has been globally recognized as genuine Aussie, there are plenty of other Australian cultural customs that may come as a surprise.


Many people know that Australia was settled as a British penal colony in the late 18th century, but you might not realize that this outlaw spirit is still a source of pride (or at least bemusement) in Australian culture. This is evident in the lore of Ned Kelly, the celebrated Australian bushranger (bandit) of the mid-19th century. Ned was from a family of poor Irish immigrants, a maligned group in Australia at the time. His exploits began when his mother shot the constable in town (which probably makes your mother seem a lot less embarrassing). She was jailed, and Ned saw her incarceration as another act of immigrant discrimination.

Vowing to "open the eyes" of the authorities, Kelly and his gang went on to hold up banks and pester (if pester means "shoot and kill") the police on his trail [source:]. He was finally captured and hung and became a symbol of the oppressed hero, fighting the system. He's still a folk hero in Australia, spawning countless movies, songs and books -- not to mention a special love in Australian society for larrikins, a term you'll become acquainted with as you read on.

Popular culture often depicts Australia as a flat, dusty desert, which is somewhat fair. It is the driest, flattest continent in the world. However, this leaves out the densely populated cities where two-thirds of the population resides, which are by and large located on the (presumably wet) shorelines [sources: DFAT, Encylopaedia Brittanica]. A singular feature of Australia is the relative isolation of the bush (surrounding wilderness) and the vast outback (an even more remote area) that occupies the interior country.

Outback, bush, larrikins -- you've only just begun to encounter the terrific slang of our Aussie friends. If you're a wowser, don't expect any sheilas to shout because a fair dinkum cobber wouldn't be a bludger who didn't shout back.

Translation: If you're uptight, don't expect any ladies to buy you a round of drinks because a real friend wouldn't be some lazy slacker who didn't buy a round back.

Continue on to learn more new words from the real Australian natives: the Aborigines who inhabited the land long before convicts and Crocodile Dundee.

Aboriginal Culture and Customs

This aboriginal rock art is really old -- just like Australian culture.

Although we sometimes see "aboriginal" as a reference to any native culture, it's important to note the term "Aboriginal people" should properly refer to the original inhabitants of Australia long before the British settlers arrived in 1788. (The term "Aborigines" is often considered perjorative.) Hungry for land, the Europeans clashed with the indigenous Australians over ownership issues. The tension between the two groups was so fierce that from 1901 to 1971, the Australian government removed Aboriginal children from their families to "civilize" them in white Australian homes. More than 100,000 children were transplanted in the so-called "Stolen Generation" [source: Time].

Aboriginal culture in Australia is thought to be the oldest in the world. The Aborigines are said to have migrated to Australia more than 60,000 years ago, over a now-extinct land bridge from Asia [source: DFAT].


A few key beliefs of Aboriginal culture hold that the Earth is eternal, and the beings that created it are still accessible through rituals. These ancestors made the Earth during a period call The Dreaming or Dreamtime, and that realm can be visited by humans through altered consciousness or dreams. Extremely important to Aboriginal culture is the belief that man, animals, nature and their Dreaming ancestors are all imbued with the same force.

In Aboriginal culture, tjurungas were mythical beings that were represented by a piece of art, usually in the form of carved stone or wood piece. The token held the knowledge of the Dreaming beings and connected man to them. Some rock and cave paintings from Aboriginal culture date back 30,000 years [source: DFAT].

Aboriginal music includes ceremonial songs that recount the mythology of their clan, and their religion and understanding of the world. And lets you think the didgeridoo was invented at your liberal arts college, the instrument was first played by Aborigines and made from tree limbs hollowed by termites.

Ritualized scarring (where the body was cut to form lifelong scars) was also used by Aboriginal people to communicate status, tribe identification or life events.

Customs and Traditions in Australia

Even though fully two thirds of the population lives in the capital cities of the states and territories, the romantic image of the Aussie jackaroo (that's cowboy, to you) persists. That's probably because, despite the isolation of the outback, it still takes up a staggering 99 percent of the nation [source: DFAT]. This sprawl, and the gigantic cattle and sheep ranches (called stations)-- some as large as the state of Texas -- has allowed Australians to refine their image as rugged stewards of the land [source: DFAT].

Australians tend to embrace their environment proudly, native or not. Fully one-quarter of the Australian population is foreign-born, an impressive number compared to the United States' 13 percent [source: ABS]. The history of immigration in the country has certainly shaped its tradition of playfully denying patriotism and harboring a certain "outlaw" culture and aversion to authority. Larrikin is an Australian term for a hoodlum, but also refers to a part of the Australian tradition that both reveres troublemakers and finds humor in the darker parts of life (Larrikinism).


This kind of dark humor is evident even in Australian holidays. Australia Day celebrates the first landing of a ship full of convicts on the continent -- not exactly a feel-good lesson of Thanksgiving for the kids. It's also a point of contention that the day doesn't acknowledge the Aboriginal traditions of Australia. Australians usually spend the day casually tending to the barbecue with friends.

ANZAC Day (April 25) in Australia is a more solemn occasion. It commemorates the landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) on the Gallipoli peninsula in 1915. They fought the Turkish for control of the Dardanelles and eventually had to withdraw after heavy losses. Australians use the anniversary as a memorial day for the armed forces in general, and dawn services honor their fallen.

Aboriginal and contemporary Australian cultures share an understanding of the importance of plant and animal life to the nation. Australia has about 1 million native species, compared to the United States' measly 21,715 [source: DFAT, Osborne]. In 1994, a Wollemi Pine was found that is believed to be one of a species that existed at the time of dinosaurs and has been around for 65 million years [source: DFAT]. Of course, it's the native kangaroos, eucalyptus and acacia trees, dingoes and koalas that have become national symbols for Australia.

Wandering in the outback and through the flora and fauna has no doubt made you hungry. Let's go to the next page, where you'll find some native Australian food and a tall, frosty beer.

Australian Grub(s) and Suds

Australian food traditions range from the tasty to the yeasty. Vegemite, anyone?

We all know that Australians love their barbecue, and we're also aware that it's called the barbie from the phrase "put another witchetty grub on the barbie."

OK, perhaps larvae are less popular than a request for shrimp, but in terms of Australian food, it's a lot more traditional. The original Aborigine diet (which is referred to as bush tucker, bush being slang for wilderness and tucker for food), included plump witchetty grubs (moth larvae), wombats, turtles and snakes, among other bush animals [source: FIEC]. Native plants, such as spinach, yams and tomatoes, also fed the native tribes. Aborigine damper is a simple, staple bread made of flour and water.


Restaurants and stores have begun to capitalize on a growing bush-tucker trend. However, the British food tradition is strong in mainstream Australian cuisine. Take the the popularity of meat pies, for instance. Australia also has a few dishes that are native, including Lamingtons (a chocolate- and coconut-covered sponge cake) and pavlovas, a meringue dish named after a popular Russian ballet dancer. Vegemite -- a salty, yeast extract spread developed in Australia -- is another national favorite.

While food is all well and good, it's alcohol that Australians proudly see as their real national cuisine -- 83 percent of the population in Australia drinks, although the country's total alcohol consumption is ranked 34th in the world [source: Commonwealth of Australia].

Beer has long been the traditional favorite. But guess what's not Australian for beer? That's right; Foster's is actually much more popular in the United Kingdom than in Australia, where it's largely considered a tourist choice. When you're in Australia, better to order a Victoria Bitter (call it a VB to sound like a real Aussie), or a Toohey.

Australia's wine culture exploded in the mid-'90s, and it's now the sixth largest wine-producing country in the world [source: DFAT]. Interestingly, Australian vineyards are some of the oldest in the world. When disease blighted European vines in the 1800s, only the vines transported to Australia survived.

The most important thing to learn about Australian culture is the "shout," slang for a round of drinks. Etiquette dictates that if a shout is bought for you, you must reciprocate. If you accept a shout and buy only yourself a beer next time, expect dirty looks.

Feeling tipsy yet? Get your head back in the game as we continue on, and learn about Australian recreation and sport.

Australian Sports and Recreation

Camel racing is a rather unique Australian sporting tradition.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

Bet you didn't know that the 8-year-old girls you see on the playground are actually participating in an Aboriginal game that's thousands of years old. Brambahl -- or as we call it, jumping rope-- is a traditional Aborigine game in which two people swing a rope and a third jumps. In Aboriginal games, the jumper performs a series of miming actions (plucking thorns from his or her feet, jumping like a frog).

Other traditional games include buroinjin, a kind of touch football where a team attempts to run a ball across a field without being touched by their opponents. If you're fresh out of kangaroo skin (the traditional material for a ball in Aboriginal tradition), feel free to use a football. And we can't forget the boomerang, a popular toy and sport in Aboriginal culture. When the u-shaped disc is thrown correctly, it returns back to the thrower.


More recently, Australians are wild about their team sports. Australian Rules football (also known as "Aussie rules" or "footy") is an extremely popular national pastime. This rough-and-tumble cross between rugby and soccer lets you run with the ball, albeit with a bounce on the ground every 33 feet (10 meters). A hundred thousand people attend the grand final game every year [source: DFAT].

Rugby is also a popular game in Australia, where the participants show their fortitude by tackling each other and engaging in rough contact without the cushy padding and wimpy (all right, protective) helmets of American football players.

The Melbourne Cup is a horse race that the nation tunes into every year in early November. It's common for people to enter sweeps (a lottery where you're given a randomly drawn horse to bet on), and festivities are held nationwide.

In recent years, Australians are having a laugh at camel races. Extremely brave (or insane) riders attempt to corral their moody (or explosively angry) camels around a racetrack. Camels, which were exported to Australia in the early 1800s to help ease the building of railways and telegraph lines, were eventually released into the wild [source: McMahon]. Estimates say there are up to 150,000 camels still roaming free in Australia [source: Squires]. The races themselves started in the outback in the mid-1900s and have only recently become a wider spectator sport [source: Squires].

For a far more agreeable race, let's sprint to the next page, where we'll find lots more information about Australia and its traditions and culture.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

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