When I was in the US, it bemused the citizenry there to hear that Australia stopped on the first Tuesday in November for a horse race. In Victoria, it was even a public holiday. But they were the unlucky ones. For the rest of the country, it was a paid holiday.
But is not just ‘a’ holiday for Australians, it is ‘the’ holiday. And it has been going on for well over a century (not bad for a country where the concept of a public holiday is not much more than two centuries old). In 1895, Mark Twain visited Melbourne. Cup Day had the same impact then as it does now:
The Melbourne Cup is the Australasian National Day. It would be difficult to overstate its importance. It overshadows all other holidays and specialized days of whatever sort in that congeries of colonies. Overshadows them? I might almost say it blots them out. Each of them gets attention, but not everybody’s; each of them evokes interest, but not everybody’s; each of them rouses enthusiasm, but not everybody’s; in each case a part of the attention, interest, and enthusiasm is a matter of habit and custom, and another part of it is official and perfunctory. Cup Day, and Cup Day only, commands an attention, an interest, and an enthusiasm which are universal and spontaneous, not perfunctory. Cup Day is supreme – it has no rival. I can call to mind no specialized annual day, in any country, which can be named by that large name Supreme. I can call to mind no specialized annual day, in any country, whose approach fires the whole land with a conflagration of conversation and preparation and anticipation and jubilation. No day save this one; but this one does it. …
I think it must be conceded that the position of the Australasian Day is unique, solitary, unfellowed; and likely to hold that high place a long time.
As usual for Twain, timeless words. You can read the full extract here.