The sound of crashing waves. The smell of fish and chips. The taste of seawater. The sight of a classic catch. The touch of raw sunburn.

The Australian summer break is a collection of sensations, as much as it is a period of time, each one with the power to transport us to a particular moment. The foundation of this nostalgia is routine. Year after year, many of us do the same thing in the same place at the same time. This familiarity allows us space to forget what is going on elsewhere – and just relax.

After 2020, there is a lot to unwind from. Australians have done their bit to try and stop the spread of COVID-19 by giving up many of life’s pleasures: restaurants, trips, parties, entertainment, sport, family gatherings. For some parts of the country, these restrictions continue. This summer follows a previous one plagued by some of the worst bushfires in Australia’s history. So yes, there’s a bit riding on this one.

Yet while a holiday break is a given for many Australians, it has not always been the case (and some workers may not get one at all).

Where did the idea of taking time off come from? How have summer holidays evolved in Australia? And how are we holidaying now, in a “COVID-19” world?

Holiday time at Sydney's Coogee, circa 1900.

Holiday time at Sydney’s Coogee, circa 1900. Credit:Swain & Co, Getty Images

Where did the concept of holidays come from?

The word holiday comes from the Old English “halig daeg”, which translates to holy day. That’s a singular: the sole weekly day of rest was for religion. Christians didn’t work Sundays, while Jews observed the sabbath on Saturdays. The holy day of Islamic prayer was on Fridays, a day that still marks the start of the weekend in Muslim-majority countries. Most cultures also held additional religious events throughout the year, offering more chances for piety (and leisure).

In ancient Rome, there were no weekly breaks but life would grind to a halt for regular festivals such as Saturnalia in mid-December when gods such as Saturn were celebrated with food and wine as well as the sacrifice of a pig, sheep and bull.

For most of history, travel was basically restricted to religious pilgrimages as well as trade, exploration and war. That changed when the “grand tours” of Europe became a rite of passage for young British aristocrats keen on cultural self-improvement (and partying) in the 18th century.

The lower classes needed more time off before they could join in the fun. The weekend was first introduced during the Industrial Revolution after various campaigns highlighted the impacts of increased labour on workers.

Larger numbers of people could take advantage of what was becoming the archetypal working-class holiday.

In the mill towns of northern England, near cities such as Manchester and Leeds, a forerunner to summer holidays was “wakes week”. Originally church feasts, these weeks became mandated shutdowns. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement: factory owners did maintenance while workers took an unpaid break.

At the same time, steam was making travel easier. “What that meant was that larger and larger numbers of people could take advantage of what was becoming the archetypal working-class holiday, which was to go to the seaside,” says Eric Zuelow, a professor of European history at the University of New England and author of A History of Modern Tourism.

The English seaside town of Blackpool was a favourite destination, with dozens of trains each day ferrying workers to the coast, many lured by the Victorian-era belief that seawater was a cure-all for maladies. Day trips evolved into week-long holidays – whole towns decamped en masse to the gender-segregated beaches – with workers starting savings clubs to help fund their getaways.

Wakes week continued until the middle of the 20th century, when the factory chimneys stopped smoking with the decline of manufacturing. By then, the summer holiday was an established part of working life.

A picnic at Freshwater Beach in Sydney, c. 1890s.

A picnic at Freshwater Beach in Sydney, c. 1890s.Credit:Tyrell Collection: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

How did the idea of leisure become popular?

In the 19th century, “environmental determinism” – a now-debunked school of thought – argued that climate, among other things, affected racial characteristics. It was posited that colder places produced more complex and highly evolved civilisations than tropical and hot areas. The concept played into white supremacy and the colonisation of Indigenous people.

After the white settlement of Australia, this attitude was also applied to the first generations born here outside Britain. Up for debate was the idea that the colonials were affected by the heat, which made them less keen to work. Scottish travel writer Robert Foster Fraser noted in 1910 that the people lacked “vim” and showed signs of having been drained by their climate. The “doggedness” of the first settlers was disappearing.

“Of people of British origin, the Australians are the most pleasure-loving I have come across,” he also observed. “But what effect is this having on the development of the nation?”

It was a desire to develop as citizens, as well as fathers and husbands, that was one reason given by 19th-century workers for campaigning for more time off; in a world first, the eight-hour day was achieved in Melbourne in 1856 by striking stonemasons, who wanted eight hours’ labour, eight hours’ rest and eight hours’ recreation. This so-called “workers’ paradise”, with its “Mediterranean” climate (relative to Britain) and endless beaches, offered the perfect conditions and some time for leisure.

In 1859, The Sydney Morning Herald proclaimed: “We are the children of the sunny south, and we borrow from the clear skies above us, and from the general clime, much of that lightness of heart and of that vivacity, which so eminently distinguish us as holiday-making people.”

Businesses complained that Australians didn’t work hard enough, they were thinking about their holidays all the time.

As University of Sydney associate professor Richard White, a tourism historian, puts it, there was an attitude among Australians of “working to live, rather than living to work”.

But there were concerns from those worried about their profits.

“A lot of people complained,” he says. “Businesses complained that Australians didn’t work hard enough, they were thinking about their holidays all the time. It’s probably a better way to live.”

By the end of the 19th century, White notes, many Australians were taking recognisably modern holidays. Wealthy people had substantial holiday homes in places such as Mount Macedon (for Victorians), while others could enjoy the guest-houses or hotels that sprang up in new coastal resorts such as Manly (for Sydneysiders).

In the 1930s, Australians were enjoying annual leave for the first time after the printers union paved the way for other workers to take paid holidays. That led to a boom in leisure over the next few decades, with entitlements rising steadily to four weeks by the 1970s.

Northern beaches glamour circa 1935, at Palm Beach, Sydney.

Northern beaches glamour circa 1935, at Palm Beach, Sydney.Credit:Getty Images

How did holiday styles change over time in Australia?

Surf culture took off in the 1920s, as the “bronzed Aussie” lifesaver became a national stereotype. The nation’s reputation for egalitarianism was reflected in the observation of journalist John Douglas Pringle (another Scotsman) that “you cannot tell a man’s income in a pair of swimming trunks”.

Around the same time, the car was helping people get to new hard-to-reach spots away from the heaving crowds, who were limited to travelling by rail to places such as Frankston, or by tram to beaches like Coogee. Initially, these car holidays were seen as a form of individual expression – of going anywhere you wanted. It was the beginning of the weekender bolthole, with rudimentary beach shacks offering an escape from city life.

A family camping trip to Tambo River, Victoria, in December 1938.

A family camping trip to Tambo River, Victoria, in December 1938. Credit:Museum Victoria

As the road trip caught on, automobile clubs began to publish maps of noted destinations. Roads and parking were improved, along with other travel infrastructure such as camp grounds. Soon after, the caravan was born.

In 1933, Archer Russell wrote about the newfound freedom that caravanning offered, in The Sydney Mail: “We are going to find Australia … We are going where the mood and the moment take us.”

After World War II, car ownership rose dramatically, as a booming economy created a comfortable middle class with time and a bit of money to spend. The crowds flocked to holiday spots on the Mornington Peninsula and Central Coast, bringing the city traffic with them. People were less interested in striking out alone.

“Towards the end of the ’50s, you’ve pretty well got mass car ownership,” says White. “And while there was still kudos in getting away from the crowds, people were also enjoying going to the same place with the same people in the same camping area, year after year after year.”

Caravans such as this one from the '50s provided mobility, although people tended to take them to the same place every summer.

Caravans such as this one from the ’50s provided mobility, although people tended to take them to the same place every summer. Credit:National Museum of Australia

Why do people take the same holiday year after year?

The post-war Australian way of life was constructed around the family, home ownership and job security, says White. And the long summer holiday played a key part, starting with the ritual of packing the car after Christmas Day and heading off for most of January. Social bonds were formed at camp grounds and in caravan parks.

Importantly, these holidays were fairly cheap: accommodation was almost free, while rudimentary meals kept expenses low. The biggest splurge might be dinner at the fish-and-chip shop; activities consisted of lazing by the ocean, reading a book or playing a board game. Children were allowed to roam free, expected only to be home at dusk.

A family sets off on holiday to Phillip Island in Victoria, towing a Travelite trailer. Circa 1951.

A family sets off on holiday to Phillip Island in Victoria, towing a Travelite trailer. Circa 1951.Credit:Museum Victoria

But these types of holidays were not always looked upon with fondness. “Real” campers sneered at those who brought their suburban life with them in the boot of the car or back of a caravan, notes White. Meanwhile, teenagers rebelled at the thought of being trapped with their parents for weeks at a time, while “housewives” complained that the only change on holiday was a different kitchen sink.

While some might have seen a class distinction between owners of beach houses and those who camped, many early coastal properties were not much more than fibro shacks. (These days, short-term summer accommodation options have expanded through providers such as Airbnb.)

“That [caravan] kind of holiday was very much a working-class experience,” says UTS associate professor Carmel Foley, a researcher who has studied the popularity of caravan parks. “I’ve got friends who have said to me, ‘I would die if I had a holiday in a caravan park’ – because they’re not from that background.”

Going … to Europe you would be racing around the whole time. But a holiday … was where you don’t have to do anything.

In her research, Foley interviewed campers at two caravan parks in Queensland about why they chose to go back year after year. One example was an 82-year-old woman who had returned every year since she was a baby.

The freedom to do nothing was a common theme among the regulars, who enjoyed the main decision being what to have for dinner each day. The anticipation of returning to the caravan park built throughout the year, with some booking their spots for next time on the drive home.

“They talked about what they called a holiday and going on a trip,” says Foley. “Going on a trip might be going over to Europe, where you would be racing around the whole time visiting things. But a holiday, to the people I talked to, was where you don’t have to do anything. You get time out from all of that stuff.”

Surf culture was part of the allure of the summer break.

Surf culture was part of the allure of the summer break. Credit:

So, what’s next and is the long summer holiday declining?

Where some yearn for weeks of nothing, others recoil in horror at the idea of long stretches staying idle. Modern travel is often about packing in as many “experiences” as possible, allowing busy people to get bang for buck from their precious time off work.

Pre-COVID-19, cheap airfares had made international and interstate trips much more affordable; some families flew to Bali or New Zealand, or New York, rather than driving to, say, Lorne or Merimbula for the summer break.

Horizons were expanded well beyond the foreshores of coastal Australia but, for now, those wings have been clipped. Airline bosses believe international travel won’t resume until July 2021, with Qantas CEO Alan Joyce saying passengers will need to be vaccinated before boarding a flight.

For now, the pandemic has forced a return to how people used to take summer holidays. International (and intermittent state) border closures have mostly restricted people to places they can reach by car or public transport, with regional towns hoping to finally enjoy a profitable summer.

“I think one of the interesting things about COVID has been a rediscovery of the local holidays, the holiday that’s not so far away – that you drive to,” says White.

“Getting in your Kombi van or your station wagon and just taking off has been revived as a sort of young person’s holiday, like the grey nomads have been doing. Because otherwise those [young] people would probably be going backpacking somewhere.”

COVID-19 has also blurred the boundaries between work and leisure, with people spending months doing their jobs from home. Others have packed their laptop and smartphone and relocated to “holiday” destinations, no longer tied to a CBD office.

The annual summer closure is also less defined, as a 24/7 economy demands that businesses, including retail, continue to operate during the break. For casual workers and many small business owners, being absent from work means giving up the chance to earn an income.

So what does all this mean for the future of the summer holiday?

“My guess is that we will go back to more or less what we knew before the pandemic, that people will want to do long-haul flights again. It’ll start to bounce back fairly quickly,” says Zuelow.

But while overseas trips jam-packed with activities will be back on some people’s itineraries, others look set to continue the tradition of the pilgrimage to the beach for a long summer break. Although, says White, “it probably is declining”.

I think people would be more likely to have a long holiday overseas than one in Australia. Or looking at shorter, more expensive trips,” he says.

“But, certainly, the camping areas are still packed in summer. And I think they’ll remain packed in summer.”

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