Story: Public holidays

Page 5. New Zealand’s special national holidays

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Waitangi Day – 6 February

Waitangi Day is recognised as New Zealand’s national day. It commemorates the first day of the Treaty of Waitangi was signed on 6 February 1840 by representatives of the British Crown and over 500 Māori chiefs. This paved the way for the British colonisation of New Zealand. Because the implications of the Treaty continue to be debated, the day is often one of protest as well as celebration.

The day was first observed in 1934 when Governor-General Lord Bledisloe gifted the Treaty House and grounds at Waitangi to the nation. For decades, most Pākehā New Zealanders regarded Waitangi Day as a celebration of harmonious race relations. Māori, however, began to see it as a day to draw attention to breaches of the treaty by the Crown.

Waitangi Day was not a public holiday until 1974. The Waitangi Day Act 1960 declared 6 February a day of national thanksgiving that could be substituted for any other local public holiday. In 1973 the name was changed to New Zealand Day, but it reverted to Waitangi Day in 1976.

Waitangi Day commemorations traditionally took place at Te Tii marae and the treaty grounds at Waitangi, and were attended by the prime minister and other politicians, the governor-general and diplomats. Events included a dawn service, pōwhiri, launching of waka (canoes), sports, Māori cultural performances and a naval salute. From the 1970s Māori protesters began to disrupt the ceremonies. Protests escalated, and in the late 1990s and early 2000s official functions were sometimes cancelled or held at Government House in Wellington instead. In the early 21st century community concerts and gatherings were held around the country, to widen participation and emphasise the positive aspects of Waitangi Day.

Lest we forget

The dedication read at dawn services on Anzac Day concludes with the fourth verse of Laurence Binyon’s poem, ‘For the fallen’:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.1

Anzac Day – 25 April

Anzac Day marks the anniversary of the landing of New Zealand and Australian troops, popularly known as Anzacs (ANZAC was the acronym for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps), on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey in 1915. The attempt to capture the peninsula failed. However, New Zealand and Australia strengthened their ties during the campaign. It is widely believed that for New Zealand, the Gallipoli experience sowed the seeds of nationhood.

The first Anzac Day was observed in 1916 with processions, church services and public meetings attended by large crowds. In 1920 the Anzac Day Act made 25 April a public holiday to commemorate those who had died in the First World War, and in 1949 those who fell in the South African and Second World wars were included. Now the day honours all New Zealanders who have served in wars overseas.

On the Friday before Anzac Day (known as Poppy Day) volunteers are on the streets to hand out red poppy buttonholes in return for donations to the Returned and Services’ Association welfare fund. The poppies, which recall those on the French and Belgian battlefields of the First World War, are worn both on Poppy Day and on Anzac Day.

Anzac Day ceremonies around the country involve two main events. The dawn service begins with a pre-dawn march by returned service personnel to the local war memorial. During a short service, a dedication remembering the fallen is read, and the last post is played. Later in the morning, another more public parade and service take place, and wreaths are laid at the war memorial. Traditionally, veterans then go to the local RSA club to drink and reminisce. During the morning, most commercial activities are prohibited. Anzac Day ceremonies were well attended from the 1920s until the 1960s, but numbers fell in the following two decades. Since the 1980s more New Zealanders have attended Anzac Day services, and descendants of war veterans often march wearing their forebears’ medals.

Mātauranga Māori

At the passing of the Te Ture mō te Hararei Tūmatanui o te Kāhui o Matariki 2022 Te Kāhui o Matariki Public Holiday Act 2022, MP Kiri Allan said:

He rā nui whakaharahara tēnei mō Aotearoa nui tonu, mō ngā whakatipuranga katoa, tae atu ki ngā reanga katoa kāore anō i whānau mai. Ka tupu rātou i runga i te mōhio e noho mātāmua mai ana te mātauranga Māori ki te whenua arohanuitia ana e tātou tō tātou kāinga, tō tātou ūkaipō e tū tangata ai rātou i te mata o te whenua.

This is a very important day for New Zealand at large, for all generations including those as yet unborn. They will grow up in the knowledge that mātauranga Māori has a primary place in the land that is loved by all of us, our home, our real home, so that they may hold their heads high in this world.2

Matariki holiday – June or July

In June 2022, the nation celebrated Matariki as a public holiday for the first time. The day is the first holiday that recognised and celebrated te ao Māori (the Māori world). Matariki is an abbreviation of ‘Ngā mata o te ariki Tāwhirimātea’ (The eyes of the god Tāwhirimātea) and refers to a large cluster of stars, also known as the Pleiades, which rises in the early morning in midwinter. It marks the changing of the seasons and the beginning of the Māori New Year. 

The government announced at the time the legislation was passed that it intended to ensure that mātauranga Maori was at the heart of celebrations of the public holiday. The day would be a time for remembrance, for celebrating the present and for looking to the future.

The date of the Matariki public holiday shifts each year to align with the Māori lunar calendar. It will be observed on a Friday, usually in late June or early July. A Matariki Advisory Group comprising tikanga experts from around the country was set up to advise ministers on when the holiday should be celebrated and set the dates for the first 50 years.

Labour Day – October

The first Labour Day was celebrated by trade unionists on 28 October 1890 as part of a campaign to have the eight-hour working day extended to all industries. Some New Zealand workers had enjoyed that right since 1840, when it was first demanded by Wellington carpenter Samuel Duncan Parnell.

Tomato time

New Zealand’s Labour Day occurs in mid-spring, when the weather is becoming warmer. According to New Zealand gardeners’ lore, you should plant tomatoes on Labour Weekend to ensure the best possible crop.

Although the government was reluctant to enforce the eight-hour working day across the board, it did pass the Labour Day Act 1899 to establish a public holiday on the second Wednesday of October. From 1910 Labour Day was observed on the fourth Monday in October.

Early Labour Days were marked by big parades, with unionists marching behind banners and elaborate floats. Afterwards, picnics and sports competitions were held. By the 1920s these observances had died away, and Labour Day simply became a spring holiday to look forward to.

Other special holidays

Very rarely, one-off public holidays are declared. The death of Queen Elizabeth II was commemorated by a public holiday on 26 September 2022. Unfortunately, this was the same date as South Canterbury’s regional anniversary holiday. The three local authorities in South Canterbury held a poll to determine what should happen. More than 8,000 people responded, with a large majority supporting moving South Canterbury’s anniversary day to 11 November (the same day as the rest of Canterbury) for that year only.

  1. ‘The ceremony – Anzac Day.’ (last accessed 12 April 2011). Back
  2. Quoted in ‘Celebrating Matariki as a public holiday.' New Zealand Parliament, (last accessed 19 April 2023). Back
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Public holidays - New Zealand’s special national holidays', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 July 2024)

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