Story: Leisure in traditional Māori society – ngā mahi a te rēhia

Page 2. The social aspects of leisure

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The daily routine

Māori rose early, often before dawn, to make the most of daylight. They ate two meals a day, always in the open air, and finished working as night fell. In addition to work associated with food production, other daily chores included the preparation and cooking of food, and gathering and breaking up firewood. Making and maintaining whare (houses), waka (canoes), kupenga (nets), bird snares, tools, weapons, clothing and domestic items using natural materials were other time-consuming activities.

Evening gathering

The fall of night signalled the end of the day’s work and ushered in communal leisure time:

At night the people loved to assemble in one of the larger huts and there pass the evening in conversation, story-telling, and amusements. Fires in small pits sunk in the earthen floor of a hut were used in winter for both warmth and light.1


Winter in particular, with its long dark evenings and poor weather, was a time for storytelling and indoor games. Whare were lit by fires in the floor and torches made from thin lengths of smokeless maire wood tied in bundles.


As early European observer J. S. Polack remarked, ‘any meeting of the people, whatsoever the object, was marked by a feast.’2

Hākari (feasts) involving guests from other kāinga were an important part of traditional society. Reasons for hākari included tohi (baptisms), tomo (betrothals), pākūhā (marriages), tangihanga (funerals), hahunga (exhumations) and hohou rongo (peace-making). Hākari were also associated with building a house, making a canoe, hunting, fishing or waging war. Some feasts, known as paremata or kaihaukai, were given in return for an earlier feast.

Hākari stages

Most gatherings took place in autumn and early winter, when food was plentiful. As one of the main objects of hākari was to enhance the mana (reputation) of the hosts, hapū tried to outdo one another. Early European visitors described hākari stages ‘[f]ifty or sixty feet high, which were made to support eight or ten stories, heaped up with baskets of food to the very top.’3

Although ritual and politics were important parts of most gatherings, many people took advantage of the break in the work routine to socialise and participate in leisure activities. Polack noted that ‘ceremonious visits are regarded as gala days by the New Zealanders’.4 Writing about gatherings, ethnologist Elsdon Best commented:

Its primary object might be ritual or ceremonial, as an exhumation of bones of the dead, or a marriage feast, or a baptismal rite, but secondarily it would also be a social function and a business or political meeting. Tribal and clan matters would be discussed and arranged, while the people generally, especially the young folk, would indulge in many forms of amusement, pastimes and contests.5

Pastimes at hākari

Arthur Saunders Thomson, in his 1859 history of New Zealand, wrote that pastimes included ‘dancing, singing, talking, wrestling, racing, throwing spears, crying, climbing, swimming, flying kites, playing at ti, tossing the poi ball.’6

  1. Elsdon Best, The Maori as he was. Wellington: Dominion Museum, 1934, p. 93. Back
  2. J. S. Polack, Manners and customs of the New Zealanders, vol. 2. London: J. Madden & Co., 1840, pp. 386–7. Back
  3. Richard Taylor, Te Ika a Māui. London: Wertheim and Macintosh, 1855, p. 169. Back
  4. Manners and customs of the New Zealanders, vol. 2, pp. 386–7. Back
  5. Elsdon Best, The Maori, vol. 1. Wellington: Government Printer, 1924, p. 384. Back
  6. Quoted in Elsdon Best, Games and pastimes of the Maori. Wellington: Government Printer, 1976, pp. 16–17. Back
How to cite this page:

Ross Calman, 'Leisure in traditional Māori society – ngā mahi a te rēhia - The social aspects of leisure', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Ross Calman, published 5 Sep 2013