It's all over now for another year, but once again I have been intrigued by the consistently increasing crowds attending Anzac Day services. And particularly the large presence of children, from babes in arms to teenagers and young adults.

What is it, I wonder, that brings tens of thousands of New Zealanders out, even in the cold and the rain, to attend often outdoor ceremonies in which they ostensibly simply pay tribute to the fallen in two world wars and other conflicts in which our servicemen fought?

There has to be more than that to it, and I am increasingly persuaded that it is a desire on the part of many, particularly the young, to find the sort of anchor that only pride in one's country, its people and its history - nationalism, if you like - can confer.

I suspect there were more people at Anzac Day services on Monday than there were at church services on Good Friday or Easter Sunday, and that alone could provide a clue to the popularity of this annual commemoration.

As Anthony Hubbard put it in a column in the Sunday Star-Times at the weekend, organised religion has been on a long slide in New Zealand and the churches have waned as a public presence.

"Nationalism," he wrote, "supplies some of the needs traditionally met by religion, a sense of continuity, of identity, of belonging to a larger cause, of comfort, of history and purpose ..."

I quote him here simply because I was thinking very much along those same lines and, quite frankly, couldn't have put it better myself. The ceremonies of Anzac Day have become, as one Rotorua Catholic priest puts it, for many a secular liturgy.

Certainly, were any of the fallen of the world wars to pay a visit to New Zealand in the 21st century, one of the things he would notice would be the very small number of children who attend Sunday School - one of the great tragedies of our age.

Back in his day most Kiwi kids were taken or sent to Sunday School, even if only to give their parents a bit of time to themselves. And there they received a grounding in that sense of duty to their fellow man, of nationhood and belonging which propelled them to the recruiting offices because they felt the call to fight "for God, for King and for Country".

It is sad, in a way, that so many have come to depend on the commemoration of Anzac Day to provide, especially for the young, a sense of where they as New Zealanders have come from, what happened and where they are now.

But what else do we have to give a sense of nationalism, of uniqueness, of patriotism? Certainly not Waitangi Day, which always seems to do little but emphasise the divisions that exist between Maori and Pakeha, the gravest and seemingly most insuperable, endless conflict of our time.

Anzac Day, on the other hand, is totally non-partisan. It is something our two races celebrate while standing together, just as our ancestors fought - and died - together in defence of freedom. It is, indeed, an example of how things should always be between us.

Our success at certain sports - rugby, yachting - doesn't cut it. They are trivial pursuits and our victories but transient causes for celebration. In a world rapidly getting smaller they do nothing to reinforce our sense of national uniqueness.

There are those who have for some years said that Anzac Day is truly our only national day - and they are right. Any attempt, however, to try to "improve" it should be mightily resisted.

There are no Gallipoli veterans left; soon there will be no World War II veterans left. But there will, thank God, always be those who have served or are serving their country in uniform in faraway places and at home to carry on the tradition left to them by those who went before.

One of the most engaging images of Monday's ceremonies was Stephen Parker's picture in our local Rotorua Daily Post of lovely 3-year-old twins Emma and Lucy Powell, bedecked across the front of their hooded rain jackets with medals.

Lucy wore the medals awarded to her father for service with the air force in New Guinea and East Timor at the turn of the millennium; and Emma wore her grandfather's medals earned in World War II.

These two tots have been taken by their father to Anzac services since the year they were born and I rejoice that the future of Anzac Day is secure in the hearts, minds and hands of such as these.

Before I finish I must pay tribute to Maori Television for its peerless Anzac Day programming, from early morning until well into the night. As usual, it was a signal lesson in what public television ought to be.