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In 1865 the bells of St James' Cathedral were rung on seven special occasions: the Queen's birthday, the Prince of Wales' birthday, Separation Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. Melbourne's festivals and celebrations continue to be an expression of religious, ethnic, cultural, suburban and civic identity. Now more likely to be professionally managed, commercialised, and promoted to tourists and for their benefit to the local economy, they reveal in their great variety and adaptation a positive revival of community and a significant move away from the narrow Anglo-Celtic ascendancy of foundation and early Melbourne.

Religious allegiance continues to frame part of Melbourne's annual festive calendar. Christian saints' days such as St Patrick's Day have less public exposure than in the pre-World War II period. Christian celebrations at Christmas and Easter continue to have religious as well as secular and commercial appeal, while Jewish, Hindu, Islamic and Buddhist festivals have ongoing importance for families and communities. Many of Melbourne's ethnic communities commemorate individual national or religious days at their community cultural centres, while municipalities host multicultural festivals to celebrate the cultural diversity of their residents. An annual Hispanic Community Fiesta is held in November in Johnston Street, Fitzroy; the Lygon Street Festa has been a celebration of Carlton's Italian community since 1978; the annual Antipodes 'Glendi' Festival is hosted in the Greek precinct; and Chinese New Year celebrations are a popular attraction in Little Bourke Street.

The traditional annual marking of Empire Day, Wattle Day and Guy Fawkes Day had given way by the second half of the 20th century to a new round of festivals and celebrations. National holidays now include New Year's Day, Good Friday and Easter Monday, Anzac Day, the Queen's Birthday, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. In Melbourne, statutory holidays also include Labour Day in March and Melbourne Cup Day in November. Major sporting events are attended by a host of celebratory functions and activities. Where the Henley-on-Yarra rowing regatta was one of Melbourne's most popular events until the 1950s, now the Melbourne Cup, Formula I Grand Prix and the Grand Final (including the Grand Final Parade) take centre stage. Show Day was a public holiday in Melbourne until 1994, but the Royal Melbourne Show in September continues to be one of the city's most popular annual events. The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival and Fashion Week showcase local products.

The Sunbury Pop Festival has iconic status, representing the creative culture of the early 1970s. Arts festivals play an important ongoing role in the cultural and economic life of the city, with an annual round of well-established events: Moomba; music (classical, jazz, rock); the Melbourne Fringe Festival; the Melbourne International Film Festival; the Melbourne International Comedy Festival; the Melbourne International Arts Festival; writers' festivals; and local festivals such as the Brunswick Music Festival, the St Kilda Festival and the Sydney Road Street Party. A number of traditional street festivals (Chapel Street, Lygon Street Festa) are turning away from overcommercialisation and the high costs of infrastructure, insurance and cleaning up, and being reinvented as off-street events.

Festivals, celebrations, street processions and picnics have taken advantage of Melbourne's temperate climate; the spacious backdrop of its streets, beaches, rivers and creeks, and parks and gardens; and the dramatic props of street decorations, illuminations, arches and fireworks. Spontaneous activities such as peace and victory celebrations have taken over the city streets at short notice. Plans to celebrate news of the marriage of the Prince of Wales in 1863 included a public procession, grand illuminations, salutes in Port Phillip Bay, salvos from the shore batteries, parades of volunteers, boat races on the Yarra, a banquet for 200 select guests in the Royal Exhibition Building, and a dinner for the poor in Government House Reserve. While comparable events are now more likely to be experienced in front of television screens or the big screen at Federation Square, the city retains its potential as a celebratory space, and Melburnians need little excuse to join in.

Andrew May