Story: Public holidays

Page 3. Celebrating communities

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Founding saints days

In the 19th century days honouring the patron saints of Ireland, England and Scotland – St Patrick (17 March), St George (23 April) and St Andrew (30 November) – tended to be celebrated by settlers from those places. St Patrick’s Day was never as important in New Zealand as it was in Australia, which had many more Irish Catholic settlers, but some New Zealand Irish communities, especially on the West Coast, celebrated the day with drinking and nationalist processions.

St George’s Day commemorations tended to be low-key, with church services, flying of flags and sports meetings. Occasionally the day occurred adjacent to Easter, extending the holiday break. St Andrew’s Day was marked in style in Scots settlements such as Dunedin, where in 1874 there were cricket and golf matches, the Dunedin Jockey Club spring meeting, steamer and railway excursions, picnics and theatre performances. Caledonian societies often held sports meetings on the day.

In 1878 St Patrick’s, St George’s and St Andrew’s days were made bank holidays. The Public Holidays Act 1910 also listed these days, but decreed that the Welsh and English saints St David and St George were both to be remembered on 23 April, probably because of the few Welsh settlers in New Zealand and the closeness of the two days (St David’s Day is 1 March).

By 1955 these national days were no longer specified as public holidays. In the late 20th century green-clad Guinness drinkers began making St Patrick’s Day an occasion for convivial celebration again, but it was not a day off work.

Celebrating diversity

In the early 2000s, when New Zealanders increasingly had diverse ethnic backgrounds, days that are significant in non-European cultures became more prominent. Chinese New Year and Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, were both major public events in some cities. However, there was no sign of their becoming public holidays.

Provincial anniversaries

Provincial anniversaries were the earliest indigenous public holidays to be celebrated, and pre-dated the formal establishment of the six provinces – Auckland, New Plymouth (now Taranaki), Wellington, Nelson, Canterbury, and Otago – in 1852. Originally most anniversary days were celebrated on the date that the first Pākehā settlers arrived in each place. Auckland was an exception to this rule: its anniversary was 29 January, the day that William Hobson arrived in the Bay of Islands in 1840 as lieutenant-governor of the colony-to-be. Later, anniversary days were celebrated on the Monday or Friday closest to the actual date, or another day of local importance such as the agricultural show day.

Provincial anniversaries were very meaningful in the first few decades of Pākehā settlement, when the original settlers were still alive. Festivities included sports, balls, and church services. On Wellington Anniversary Day on 22 January 1843, boats in the sailing competition had to fight against a typical strong north-westerly wind and one overturned, but the horse races went off without incident, and the rifle-shooting match was also a success. Nelson celebrated its anniversary on 1 February 1844 with novelty events such as ‘climbing a greasy pole’ and ‘jumping in sacks’. Auckland’s Anniversary Day regatta on the Waitematā Harbour soon became established as the main focus of the day, with whaleboat races a special attraction. The Canterbury Anniversary Day of 16 December 1860 was marked by a thoroughly English game of cricket, in which an ‘All Canterbury’ side was thrashed by the Avonside club, while in Dunedin on 23 March 1863 a fireworks display in the Vauxhall Gardens helped Otago Anniversary Day go off with a bang.

Māori were welcome participants in at least some of these celebrations. Canoe races for Māori were part of early Wellington, Nelson and Auckland anniversary events, and Auckland went further and introduced a class for Māori-owned and -navigated sailing vessels in the 1853 regatta.

Provincial holidays proliferated, with Hawke’s Bay, Marlborough, Southland, Westland, South Canterbury and Chatham Islands anniversary days being added to the calendar.

Often government departments, businesses and ports closed for the day in the province, creating disruption elsewhere in the country. However, bids to replace separate anniversaries with one national day failed. Regional identity remained an important aspect of New Zealand life in the 2000s.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Public holidays - Celebrating communities', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 9 February 2023)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 1 Sep 2016