Story: Public holidays

Page 2. Easter, Christmas and New Year

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In the mid-1800s most English Methodist or Anglican and Irish Catholic settlers observed Christmas, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Scots Presbyterian settlers did not, mainly because there was no scriptural direction that these days should be observed. Instead, the Scots celebrated New Year’s Eve (Hogmanay) and New Year’s Day.

As New Zealand’s different ethnic communities became integrated during the 19th century, everyone began to celebrate Easter, Christmas and New Year. Boxing Day (26 December) and Easter Monday were two more customary (unofficial) holidays, and were widely adopted in New Zealand long before they were in England and Ireland.

Easter Sunday

In 2016 the Government amended the Shop Trading Hours Act 1990 giving territorial authorities the ability to decide whether shops in their districts could open on Easter Sunday. Various individuals and groups opposed the amendment because of the impact they believed it would have on church and family time. One such opponent, former All Black and devout Christian Michael Jones, argued that it would mean ‘many New Zealanders will miss out on the opportunity to spend Easter Sunday with their church, their communities and their families’. They also argued that Government MPs should be allowed a conscience vote on the amendment, as had been the case with similar legislation in the past. Their efforts were unsuccessful and the amendment passed its third reading 62-59.


Lent (the period of self-denial leading up to Easter), Passion week (culminating in Good Friday) and Easter Sunday involved solemn religious observances for Anglicans and Catholics. New Zealanders of other denominations or faiths welcomed Easter weekend as an autumn holiday.

Traditions such as eating hot cross buns on Good Friday were maintained. Spring symbolism, integral to northern-hemisphere Easter celebrations, was irrelevant in New Zealand, but the custom of eating Easter eggs on Easter Sunday continued, and chocolate Easter eggs were introduced in the early 1900s. In the 2000s both hot cross buns and Easter eggs were on sale for a long period before Easter.

Hunting trips and volunteer military camps were popular Easter activities in the 19th century, and later, conventions and sports tournaments were often held that weekend.

Wrong side up

Some first-generation settlers enjoyed the novelty of a summer Christmas, but for others it was a symbol of the painful upheaval of emigration. In 1852 Jemima Martin of Tāmaki wrote to her sister in England: ‘The change of seasons, Xmas in the middle of summer & winter in August gives one an uncomfortable sensation of being turned upside down & I cannot get over it & I don’t think I ever shall.’1


Homesick English and Irish settlers missed northern-hemisphere Christmas traditions and tried to maintain them. The Catholic Christmas Eve midnight mass and other church services were well-attended. Christmas trees, a German custom, were introduced to England by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, and were gradually adopted in New Zealand. Many well-known carols were composed in the 1800s, and carol singing became as popular in New Zealand as it was in the northern hemisphere. Philanthropy and giving of presents continued. Children were the main recipients, especially once the American concept of Santa Claus (better known to New Zealand youngsters as Father Christmas) caught on from the late 1860s.

Some aspects of the day were modified to suit the summer season. Decorating churches and homes continued, but instead of mistletoe and holly, native ferns, flaxes and pōhutukawa (which has red flowers around Christmas) were sometimes used. Rather than huddling indoors in front of a blazing fire, people enjoyed eating and relaxing outdoors.

Many settlers insisted on the traditional mid-winter feast of roast beef, plum pudding, Christmas cake and mince pies, washed down with wine, beer and spirits. However, summer foods such as new potatoes, peas, berries and cold puddings soon made their way onto the menu. Lamb and, later, chicken and turkey began to supplant beef, and local delicacies such as eel were provided at Māori Christmas hākari (feasts). In the 2000s barbecues rivalled formal dinners. New Zealand Christmas practices remained a blend of old and new.

Lucky first

First footing was the first visit made to friends and neighbours to wish them a happy New Year, and the aim was to arrive as soon as possible after midnight to head off other contenders. The type of ‘first footer’ was believed to determine the luck of the household throughout the year – a dark-haired man bearing whisky, food and fuel was thought to be especially propitious.

New Year

For Scots settlers, particularly those in Otago and Southland, New Year’s Eve was a time for revelry – a contrast to the solemn Watch Night services held by Anglicans and Methodists. The Scots custom of ‘first footing’ – attempting to be first to enter neighbours’ houses in the new year – was practised in New Zealand until the late 20th century. On New Year’s Day, in addition to feasting and drinking, competitors tossed the caber (a large wooden pole) or performed the sword dance at Caledonian games.

Ushering in the New Year with bonfires, fireworks, heavy drinking and the singing of ‘Auld lang syne’ became popular. In port towns ships used their signalling flares to create spectacular displays. On New Year’s Day, picnics and sporting fixtures, including races and cricket matches, were held. Many of these customs continued in the 2000s.

Summer holidays

Because Christmas and New Year were so close, and in midsummer, many people chose to visit family in other regions. The Mondayising of the Christmas and New Year holidays in 1921 helped, as did the growing practice of closing businesses between Christmas and New Year. An extended school holiday, starting before Christmas, became the norm. However, because it was harvesting and shearing time, farming people had to work.

  1. Alison Clarke, Holiday seasons: Christmas, New Year and Easter in nineteenth-century New Zealand. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2007, p. 41. Back
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Public holidays - Easter, Christmas and New Year', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 June 2024)

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