In the 19th century a silver or golden wedding anniversary was an opportunity for people in a district to express their respect for an older married couple. Friends and neighbours would get together to present an ‘address’ – a beautifully hand-lettered and decorated expression of esteem that would often be framed for display. Sometimes they would club together to buy a valuable gift such as a silver tea service. Newspaper accounts of these occasions would often explain when and how the couple arrived in New Zealand. Their joint labours, and the man’s professional achievements, would be described in detail.
Excitement too much
In 1938 the Evening Post reported: ‘Within a few hours of celebrating a unique anniversary – 65 years of married life – Mrs George Dabinett died at Milton on Saturday, aged 88. There was to have been a celebration yesterday when the anniversary fell, and 85 guests were invited. Evidently the excitement of the occasion proved too much for Mrs Dabinett.’1
Celebrations often took the form of an afternoon ‘at home’, when the couple would host well-wishers at their residence. As well as tea and cakes and polite conversation, there might be speeches and sometimes prayers. By the later 19th and early 20th centuries, more lavish parties were held. Sometimes couples hired a local hall or other public venue and had an orchestra or band to provide music. The evening’s entertainment included games, cards and dancing as well as speeches. The celebration often concluded with the singing of ‘Auld lang syne’ or ‘For they are jolly good fellows’.
For Māori, the big occasion was the golden anniversary. If the celebration was held on a marae, visitors were welcomed and then entertained at a hākari (feast) interspersed with speeches, impromptu items, toasts and waiata, including ‘He putiputi koe’ (You are a flower) and other favourites. A dance followed, and guests slept overnight in the meeting house.
Silver or golden wedding-anniversary celebrations sometimes involved an element of re-enactment of the original ceremony. An etiquette writer in 1901 advised that women should don their wedding dress for the silver wedding party – possibly a tight squeeze after 25 years. Occasionally men also wore their original wedding garments. In 1906 a Mr Smith from the Wairarapa celebrated his 65th wedding anniversary by sporting his wedding coat, complete with original brass buttons, from 1841.
The celebration dinner was described as a ‘wedding breakfast’ and a cake was cut at its conclusion. This might be a replica of, or decorated with flowers from, the original wedding cake. Sometimes the marriage service was repeated. Now, some couples renew their wedding vows on a special anniversary.
The custom of photographing couples, surrounded by their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, developed. From the 1930s newspapers published photographs of couples, particularly those celebrating golden wedding anniversaries. In recent times, these are often accompanied by the couple’s tips for a long-lasting marriage.
People are eligible for congratulatory messages from the Queen, governor-general, prime minister, minister of internal affairs, minister for senior citizens and local MP on their 50th, 55th, 60th, 65th, 70th and 75th wedding anniversaries, and birthdays of 100 years or over. The Queen does not send wedding anniversary congratulations until the couple have been married 60 years, and the governor-general’s birthday messages are limited to the 100th and 105th birthdays. People have to make a formal application for a message, and provide documentary evidence of the anniversary.
Like those celebrating 100th birthdays, by the 1930s couples who reached golden wedding anniversaries received messages from the King and the governor-general. Sometimes the prime minister, chief justice, local MP or other dignitaries added their good wishes. Couples can still receive official congratulations for major wedding anniversaries on application to the Department of Internal Affairs Congratulatory Message Service.