Story: Public holidays

Page 4. Celebrating imperial ties

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Royal birthdays

As a British colony, New Zealand observed the same royal occasions as Great Britain. Queen Victoria’s birthday was joined by the Prince of Wales’s birthday as a bank holiday in 1902, but by 1910 only the sovereign’s birthday was officially recognised as a general public holiday. Until 1937 the actual birthday of the sovereign was celebrated. George VI’s birthday was 14 December, but it was initially agreed to observe it on 9 June. The Sovereign’s Birthday Observance Act 1937 made the day of jubilation the first Monday of June, and this has continued during the reign of Elizabeth II.

Announcing awards of royal honours to New Zealand citizens on Queen’s Birthday and New Year’s Day follows the long-established British practice.

Plant a tree

From the 1890s various New Zealanders lobbied for the international tree-planting day, Arbor Day, to be observed, and in 1892 it was gazetted a public holiday for government departments. Schoolchildren, service organisations and local bodies planted hundreds of trees on 4 August each year until 1914, but the First World War diverted attention to other initiatives. Arbor Day planting was revived in 1934, and from 1977 the day was observed on 5 June, World Environment Day, with an emphasis on planting native trees. However, people no longer got the day off.

Empire Day

Empire Day, also observed by other British colonies, was first marked in New Zealand on 24 May 1903. This was the birthday of the late Queen Victoria, who had died in 1901. The Oamaru Mail of 23 May 1903 described the day as having ‘the double purpose of keeping fresh and green the memory of a most illustrious reign and rejoicing in the consolidation of our great Empire.’1 It was not a public holiday, but after George V ascended the throne in 1910, Empire Day was often celebrated on the sovereign’s birthday, with speeches, flag salutes, parades, and unveilings of statues and buildings. In 1958, Empire Day became Commonwealth Day, 11 March. In the 2000s, for most New Zealanders, it passes unnoticed.

Dominion Day

On 26 September 1907 New Zealand became a dominion of Great Britain, a symbolic step up from being a colony. Dominion Day became a statutory holiday in 1910, and was Mondayised if it fell on the weekend. Like Empire Day it was marked by official speeches and processions. In the years preceding the First World War, as military fervour grew, the day included army and school cadet parades. However, celebrations gradually faded away. In the 2000s the fourth Monday of September is no longer a national holiday. It is, however, the South Canterbury anniversary.

Independence Day?

New Zealand has no public holiday to commemorate the country’s independence. Few New Zealanders would be conscious of this omission or give it a second thought. In a 2008 article, Professor W. David McIntyre explained that, for New Zealand, independence was a process rather than an event. The country progressed from colony to dominion and to full independence without fanfare. In view of this, he suggested that instead of one national day New Zealand could well have had 12, commemorating various occasions on which New Zealand asserted its independence in international affairs between 1907 and 1986.

Peace celebrations

The power of the government to declare one-off public holidays was occasionally invoked to celebrate peace at the conclusion of wars in which New Zealand fought. On 12 November 1918, the day after Armistice Day at the end of the First World War, there was spontaneous rejoicing, but a more formal celebration was planned for the following year, once the terms of peace had been settled. After much debate over dates, the New Zealand Gazette of 17 July 1919 announced that the Government had declared Saturday 19 and Monday 21 July 1919 to be public holidays for celebrating peace. In fact there were three days of celebrations in most places: a soldiers’ day of parades and sports on Saturday, a day of thanksgiving with church services on Sunday, and a children’s day with singing and dancing on Monday.

At the end of the Second World War, Victory in Europe (VE) Day (9 May 1945) and Victory over Japan (VJ) Day (15 August 1945) were both celebrated with formal speeches, thanksgiving services and parades. Many people, however, avoided these official events and instead sang, danced and drank in the streets. On each occasion, two consecutive days were declared public holidays.

  1. ‘Why Empire Day?’ (last accessed 12 April 2011). Back
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Public holidays - Celebrating imperial ties', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)

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