If Wesley Enoch were prime minister he would recommend a three-day annual national holiday from January 25 to 27. Each day would have loose rituals; one day would be spent acknowledging our Indigenous Australians, another celebrating the growth of the country we now know as Australia, and the third rejoicing in the multicultural nation we’ve become.

Recognising that’s pie-in-the-sky stuff, in the short term the Sydney Festival director is offering The Vigil.

The Vigil is being held from dusk on Friday January 25, the eve of Australia Day, and isn’t a protest or a political statement, but rather a time for people to sit around a campfire and together reflect on what life was like before January 26, 1788, when life changed irrevocably for Australia’s original inhabitants and their descendants. The vigil will continue throughout the night until dawn on January 26, and over that time there will be music, performance, stories and reflection.

Enoch has long considered the uneasy relationship many Australians have with January 26, a date that still provokes heated debate – whether it’s about changing the date or enforcing citizenship ceremonies and dress codes.

“January 26 falls within the Sydney Festival dates, so as an Aboriginal man I need to have a response to it,” Enoch says. “What is the history of this day? What are the rituals? How did it come together? Maybe that’s the role the Sydney Festival could play – find different rituals of commemorating, rather than celebrating.”

The concept of Australia Day as an annual public holiday on January 26 is a relatively new one. It wasn’t until 1935 that all states and territories began calling January 26 “Australia Day”. And the states and territories didn’t celebrate Australia Day consistently as a public holiday until 1994. “No wonder we don’t know what we’re doing on that day, because it’s not actually that old. So we have a barbie, a celebration and some fireworks,” Enoch says.

He suggests what’s needed are rituals as are customary on Anzac Day, where the public can take part in the dawn service before attending or watching the march, then head to the pub for a game of two-up with friends. “Australia Day has no rituals, unlike Anzac Day, where there’s a progression from solemnity to a celebration of life.”

The idea for The Vigil came about after a discussion with Aboriginal lawyer and community leader Noel Pearson about the different narratives that surround Australia in 2019.

“There’s the fact that we are the longest continuing culture on earth; there’s the British colonial project and the institutions we’ve inherited from that; and the fact that we’re the most successful multi-ethnic, multicultural nation on earth. There’s no Australian who isn’t touched by those three things any time they walk down the street, yet we often feel they’re in competition when they’re not.”

Instead Enoch has extended an open invitation to The Vigil, which is being held at Barangaroo beneath designer Jacob Nash’s commanding installation Always. He expects several thousand people will come and go during the various events being held throughout the evening. There will be a choir singing Aunty Jacinta Tobin’s performance for country, ancestors and healing, Baraya: Sing Up Country (drop-in rehearsals are happening on January 24 too); speakers including Enoch himself; and a weaving circle. The Agape food truck and Bar Coco will provide coffee, ice-cream and snacks.

At dawn the Metropolitan Land Council’s ceremonial fire on Goat Island will be brought across the harbour to Barangaroo, uniting Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

Enoch is at pains to point out he is not staging a political protest or lobbying to change the date.

“That’s still an argument to be had that will not change the historical fact that the 26th of January is when the British colonial project started,” he says. “To me the 25th is an important date because it’s the day before it all changed. That’s what The Vigil is about: giving people a space where they can reflect on the day before the arrival of the ships.”

Nor is he being combative. He simply hopes to find a solution that will help Australia move forward in a positive way. “I don’t hate my mother – she’s the white side of my family – nor am I embarrassed about my father because he’s the black side of the family. I’m always going to have [a situation where] my whole family needs to feel they can come to something.

The Vigil is not a solution but an approach that feels inclusive, that’s not denying history but also not praising modern history [to the exclusion of all else].”

The Vigil will be held at Barangaroo Reserve from dusk on January 25 until dawn on January 26. Entry is free.

sydneyfestival.org.au/events/the-vigil