Story: Italians

Page 5. Customs and culture

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Life in the major settlements

Coming mostly from impoverished villages, many Italians brought the hopes, skills and family bonds that would help them adapt to a new life in urban New Zealand.

Life centred on the family, work and traditional roles, and much value was placed on respect for elders and their traditions. Although there was intermarriage with New Zealanders, many men married Italian women, or New Zealand-born daughters of Italians.

There were regular get-togethers with other families for bowls, card-playing, village saints’ days, or lively evening meals with music, wine and a bowl of pasta. Italians generally socialised with others from their region of origin. The absence of any nationwide associations in New Zealand reflects this tendency.

Wellington’s Garibaldi Club was founded in 1882. Activities included social events, folk dancing and card games. It was still active in the 2000s. Club Italiano in Auckland brought scattered groups together from 1925 until the Second World War. Auckland’s Società Dante Alighieri was founded in 1955 to encourage an appreciation of Italian culture; Wellington’s branch was the Circolo Italiano. In Nelson, men and women joined the Club Italia to celebrate spring and religious festivals, and hold concerts for local charities.

Italians did not establish their own Catholic churches, but the Catholic faith was a constant in their lives. In Island Bay, Nelson and Ponsonby–Grey Lynn, Italian worshippers formed a significant part of congregations.


Many immigrants worked in the fields, in the family shop or factory, at sea or at home. This impeded assimilation into the wider community and reduced the need to learn English. Most Italians encountered some prejudice or ignorance.

Rough treatment

Living in New Zealand in the 1950s, Italian writer Renato Amato often faced aggression and intolerance:

‘There was the plumber who wanted to knock his teeth out because he refused to show his Italian passport; the carpenter who wanted to prove with his fists that a primitive Italian couldn’t possibly use a 35mm camera; and the labourer who did knock him out because he had failed to be impressed by the other’s pidgin Italian. … He was seldom allowed to forget his nationality for a day.’ 1

When their country entered the Allied side in the First World War, Italians gained greater acceptance. But the most disturbing instance of prejudice occurred during the Second World War, when Italy was declared an enemy. About 38 Italian men were summarily interned on Somes Island in Wellington Harbour. However, when Italy joined the Allies, a closer bond was formed as Italians helped New Zealand soldiers. Direct diplomatic relations with Italy began in 1951.

Since the 1990s there has been a burgeoning interest in things Italian. Foods that were once unavailable to the immigrants are in demand – pasta, pizza, wine, espresso coffee, vegetables, herbs and breads. Many aspects of the culture are highly valued, from fashion and language classes, to furniture and garden design. More recent arrivals cater to this niche market with their own businesses and restaurants, particularly in Auckland.

Today’s community

The family continues to be an anchor, but New Zealand-born children have absorbed their adopted country’s values and language, and moved into other occupations. Many of the younger generation retain a respect for the beliefs and expectations of their parents and grandparents.

  1. From Maurice Shadbolt, The full circle of the travelling cuckoo. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1967, p. 13. › Back
How to cite this page:

Tessa Copland, 'Italians - Customs and culture', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 8 August 2022)

Story by Tessa Copland, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Mar 2015