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Public holidays

by Nancy Swarbrick

Some of New Zealand's public holidays, such as Good Friday and Christmas Day, are celebrated in many countries, but others, such as Waitangi Day, are unique to New Zealand. All have distinctly New Zealand aspects.


Public holidays legislation

In New Zealand in the early 2000s the following 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 (Queen’s Birthday)
  • 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.

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.

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, which occurs in late May or early June. However, 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.

Queen’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.

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

Coincidence or clash?

Sometimes, because of the different ways they are calculated, two different 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 – and 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.

In 2011 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 Repeal Act 1990.


Easter, Christmas and New Year

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.

Easter

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

Christmas

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.

Footnotes
    • Alison Clarke, Holiday seasons: Christmas, New Year and Easter in nineteenth-century New Zealand. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2007, p. 41. Back

Celebrating communities

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 to 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. Provincial identity remained an important aspect of New Zealand life in the 2000s.


Celebrating imperial ties

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.

Footnotes
  1. ‘Why Empire Day?’ (last accessed 12 April 2011). Back

New Zealand’s special national holidays

Labour Day

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 held 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, however, these observances had died away, and Labour Day simply became a holiday to look forward to at the end of winter.

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

Anzac Day marks the anniversary of the landing of New Zealand and Australian troops, popularly known as Anzacs (the acronym of Australia and New Zealand Army Corps), at 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 Anzac Day.

Anzac Day ceremonies around the country involve two main events. The dawn service begins with a march by returned service personnel to the local war memorial before sunrise. 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.

Waitangi Day

Waitangi Day is recognised as New Zealand’s national day. It commemorates the 1840 signing of the Treaty of Waitangi by representatives of the British Crown and over 500 Māori chiefs, paving 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 always 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 (welcome ritual), 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.

Footnotes

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

More links and websites


How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'Public holidays', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/public-holidays/print (accessed 25 August 2019)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 16 Sep 2016