The tradition of celebrating birthdays was brought to New Zealand by European settlers. In the past, birthdays were believed to be a time of danger, so people were wished well and surrounded by friends to ward off evil spirits.
Before the mid-19th century many people did not know their birth date, so they could not mark their birthdays. Births were officially registered from 1848 for Pākehā and from 1913 for Māori.
In the 19th century the status of children improved and childhood was seen as a special stage of life. Children’s birthdays began to be celebrated annually. The 21st birthday was known as ‘coming of age’, when a person became legally independent of their parents.
People express good wishes and good luck to the person whose birthday it is, or give them a card or presents. From the early 1900s most Pākehā households held children’s birthday parties involving games, a feast and a cake.
Iced and decorated birthday cakes feature lighted candles – traditionally one for each year of the person’s life. The person blows out the candles while making a wish, while the others sing ‘Happy birthday to you’, or ‘Hari huritau ki a koe’ in Māori.
21st birthdays became big events in the 20th century. People were given a decorated key to symbolise receiving ‘the key to the house’. Some Māori received a carved key or pare (door lintel).
Official congratulations from the Queen, the governor-general and other dignitaries are sent to people turning 100 or older, and to couples celebrating important wedding anniversaries.
European settlers introduced the tradition of celebrating silver (25th) and golden (50th) wedding anniversaries. In the 19th century life expectancy was low, so these occasions were rare. It became popular to celebrate other wedding anniversaries, which were associated with gifts of different materials – for instance, the first anniversary was paper and the 10th was tin.
Silver, gold and diamond (60th) anniversaries are still often celebrated with a large family gathering. Sometimes people partly re-enact their wedding, by renewing their vows, or by wearing their wedding outfit, if it still fits.