Story: Public holidays

Page 1. Public holidays legislation

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In New Zealand in the following days are statutory public holidays:

  • Christmas Day
  • Boxing Day
  • New Year’s Day
  • 2 January
  • Waitangi Day
  • Good Friday
  • Easter Monday
  • Anzac Day
  • the birthday of the reigning sovereign (King’s Birthday)
  • Matariki
  • Labour Day
  • the anniversary of a province, or the day locally observed as that day.

Often there are public ceremonies to mark the special character of these days. Employees who have to work on these days are entitled to be paid time-and-a-half and take an alternative day off. On Good Friday and Christmas Day, and until 1 p.m. on Anzac Day, all shops must close unless they meet strict criteria. In 2016 the government gave territorial authorities the ability to decide whether shops in their districts could open on Easter Sunday. 

Days of observance

Some commemorative days – Waitangi Day (6 February) and Anzac Day (25 April) – occur on the same date every year. If either falls at the weekend, the Monday is a public holiday. 

Good Friday and Easter Monday shift each year in accordance with the Christian church calendar. Easter Day is the Sunday on or after the full moon following the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere. The Matariki public holiday also changes from year to year, depending on the Māori lunar calendar. It is celebrated on a Friday in June or July.   

Give us a break!

Occasionally there are calls for more public holidays in New Zealand. Suggestions for possible events to commemorate have included 19 September (the date New Zealand women gained the vote) and Matariki, the Māori New Year. Business lobby groups usually oppose the idea because of the lost productivity and costs associated with public holidays. This was one argument against Te Rā o Matariki Bill/the Matariki Day Bill, put forward by the Māori Party in 2009. Matariki became a public holiday in 2022.

King’s Birthday and Labour Day occur on the first Monday in June and the fourth Monday in October respectively.

Anniversary days of provinces are celebrated on the Monday or Friday nearest to the actual date, on the local show day, or on the day before or after Easter.

A day off?

Some public holidays are ‘Mondayised’ – namely Waitangi Day, Anzac Day, Christmas Day (25 December) and Boxing Day (26 December), and New Year’s Day and 2 January. This means that if they fall on the weekend, for people who would normally work Monday to Friday, the days off are transferred to the following Monday and if necessary Tuesday. The Matariki holiday introduced in 2022 will always be observed on a Friday.

Others, because they always fall on a Friday or Monday, provide most workers with a long weekend.

Coincidence or clash?

Occasionally, because of the different ways they are calculated, two public holidays can coincide. This was the case in 2011, when Anzac Day and Easter Monday fell on the same day. Apart from the disappointment of workers at being denied two separate days off, the main consequence was that shops had to be closed until 1 p.m. for Anzac Day – usually they are open all Easter Monday.

Evolution of public holidays

New Zealand’s first Pākehā settlers – mostly from England, Scotland and Ireland – brought their holiday traditions with them. Long before days such as Christmas and New Year received statutory recognition, people celebrated them as customary holidays. If enough local businesses closed on a particular day, it became a ‘general holiday’. The governor could declare national or regional holidays, and provincial superintendents could create local holidays by closing provincial government offices. However, not everyone chose or could afford to take a day off work. For many people it was business as usual at Christmas and on other such days.

The Bank Holidays Act 1873, based on the British Bank Holiday Act 1871, was New Zealand’s first holiday legislation. It ruled that banks, which already shut on Good Friday and Christmas Day, must also close for business on New Year’s Day, Easter Monday, Boxing Day (26 December) and 24 May (Queen Victoria’s Birthday). The act was amended in 1878 and 1902.

Although bank workers, and usually government employees, got these days off, other people had to work unless the days fell on a Sunday (which was generally regarded as a day of rest). Laws governing working conditions, including the Employment of Females Act 1873, Factories Act 1894 and Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1894 extended the holidays to other groups of workers. Public holidays were specified in industrial awards. The Labour Day Act 1899 created New Zealand’s first statutory general holiday – Labour Day. This and other holidays were set out in the landmark Public Holidays Act 1910. Because there was no law providing for paid annual leave for all workers until 1944, public holidays were especially prized. Waitangi Day became a public holiday in 1974.  Another public holiday was not created until 2022 when the legislation governing Te Rā Aro ki a Matariki / Matariki Observance Day was passed. 

In 2020 public holidays, and employees’ entitlements in relation to them, were covered by the Holidays Act 2003. Shop trading hours were governed by the Shop Trading Hours Amendment Act 2016. 

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Public holidays - Public holidays legislation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 July 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 20 Jun 2012, reviewed & revised 19 Apr 2023