The term ‘week-end’, describing the holiday period at the end of each week’s work, came into general usage in the late 19th century. The weekend originates with the sabbath, a day of rest and worship on the seventh day of the week. The Jewish sabbath is Saturday, but most Christian denominations have a Sunday sabbath.
In 1827 a visiting English artist observed: ‘Not a bit of work would [Māori] do upon a Sunday ... At length we discovered that their cunning was as conspicuous as their politeness. They had observed we generally lay longer in bed on a Sunday morning than any other; they accordingly were up by break of day, and had completed many hours' work before we made our appearance; but the moment one of us did appear, the work was instantly left off.’1
Māori learned the concept of the sabbath from Protestant missionaries and other Christian Pākehā. Some Māori adopted Sunday as a day of rest before they adopted Christianity. This was probably a mark of respect for Pākehā customs, although a day of rest may have been seen as a good thing in itself. In later years Māori Christians often followed very strict rules for Sunday or Rātapu. Some of the Māori prophetic movements, such as Papahurihia and Ringatū, adopted the Jewish Saturday sabbath.
Many settlers from Presbyterian, Methodist and other non-conformist Protestant denominations were sabbatarians, holding strict views on Sunday activities. They believed that work, travel and pleasure-seeking were inappropriate for the ‘lord’s day’. For churchgoers, and children attending Sunday school, Sundays were important social days when people dressed in their best clothes. Sunday was usually marked by a large family meal after church.
Catholics, along with the more liberal Anglicans, viewed Sunday as a day for attending church and refraining from work, but generally took a more relaxed view on activities outside of church hours. In areas where churches had limited influence, such as the goldfields and gumfields, Sunday was often a quiet day for household chores and recreation.
Some sabbatarians held the view that even to cook on a Sunday was a breach of the sabbath. For the Will family of East Taieri ‘the Sabbath was very strictly observed. Apart from the reheating of soup and the boiling of the kettle no cooking was done – the main meal being served cold late in the afternoon.’2
Strict sabbatarians opposed all forms of recreation on Sundays, including picnics, hunting, fishing, swimming, gathering berries or flowers and even walks in the country. They believed the day should be for prayer, religious reading, rest and family activities. Sabbatarians opposed the Sunday opening of museums and public libraries. In 1885 they convinced the Dunedin City Council to prevent the naval band playing in the botanic gardens on Sunday afternoons.
Until 1884 Sunday regulations were the responsibility of local and provincial governments. Most shops were shut on Sundays, but in some areas hotels were open. Usually they could not serve alcohol, or could only serve it to travellers. The Police Offences Act 1884 included a clause forbidding most Sunday trading. The original bill also outlawed games or pastimes in public places, but these sections were removed following opposition from a group of parliamentarians led by future premier Richard Seddon.
Many people, determined to enjoy their one day off in the week, ignored sabbatarian disapproval of recreation. In response, from the 1860s transport companies put on special Sunday excursion ferries, with excursion trains added in the 1870s. Sabbatarians protested against the running of trams, trains and other public transport on Sundays. Transport workers also protested, wanting their own Sunday holiday.
In the early 20th century it became more common for concerts, and later films, to be held on Sundays. Promoters sometimes tried to defuse sabbatarian opposition by holding ‘sacred concerts’ or showing family films with a religious or moral message. In Wellington Sunday concerts and films had become the norm by 1912, while the Garrison brass band played regularly at Days Bay on Sunday afternoons.
The spread of car ownership in the 1920s and 1930s increased the potential of Sunday as a day of leisure. Families took Sunday drives to scenic areas for picnics, swimming and walks. Weekend tramping, climbing, fishing, hunting or going to the bach or crib (holiday homes) became more feasible, especially for those who were able to have a full day off on Saturday.
In the mid-19th century most workers with regular jobs worked a six-day week. As the century progressed many workers obtained Saturday half-holidays. Saturday afternoon became the time to hold sports matches. Some employers supported the half-holiday, hoping it would discourage ‘Saint Monday’, the workers’ custom of taking Monday off to recover from Sunday leisure activities.
The practice of Saint Monday, skipping work on Monday to recover from Saturday night and Sunday, was apparently widespread in 19th-century Britain. Colonists liked to argue that it was less common in New Zealand. In 1874 it was noted, ‘as a general rule, Monday is now expected ... to see each man in his place, ready to commence with all cheerfulness the work of another week and that the habitual patrons of “Saint Monday” have almost died out altogether.’1
School children also generally had Saturday off school, although for many this meant working to help their families.
Throughout the 19th century, and well into the 20th, Saturday was pay day for most workers. Saturday night was therefore a major shopping night. For those who had finished their work by the early evening, Saturday nights were a time for entertainment. Families went shopping together, with towns having a lively market atmosphere. Concerts, lectures and, from the early 1900s, movie shows were held on Saturday nights. Music halls, billiard parlours and pubs, generally the haunts of working class males, provided entertainment to a late hour. Such establishments were popular, but were often frowned upon by ‘polite society’. Groups such as sports clubs, lodges, volunteer corps and unions often held ‘smoke concerts’ on Saturday nights. These consisted of social dining, with musical or comic items by those present, speeches, smoking and drinking many rounds of toasts.
In the late 19th century the Saturday half-holiday was by no means universal. Some workers, including many office workers, still worked a six-day week. Shop assistants often worked very late hours, with the shops open until after 11 p.m.
In 1900 an Auckland shop assistant wrote in favour of shops closing at 10 p.m. on Saturdays. ‘We are now, some of us, working 14, 14 ½ and even 15 hours on Saturdays, and for this there is no need if the working men would have a little consideration for the shop assistants, who do not, like themselves, enjoy a Saturday half holiday.’ 2
From the late 1840s ‘early closing’ associations began to appear in New Zealand. They aimed to reduce the working hours of retail and office workers, and to obtain a weekly half-holiday. The movement included businesspeople, clergymen and activist groups such as the Knights of Labour, but also had strong support among workers themselves. Drapers’ assistants led the campaign in Wellington and Christchurch. From the 1870s many towns adopted shopping half holidays, but these were often on Wednesday or Thursday, rather than Saturday.
In 1873 female factory workers were guaranteed a weekly half-holiday, finishing work at 2 p.m. on Saturdays. The law was extended in 1881 to cover male factory workers under 18 years of age. In 1891 the factory half-holiday was extended to begin at 1 p.m. The Shops and Shop Assistants Act 1892 gave shop assistants a half-holiday, also starting at 1 p.m., but not necessarily on a Saturday.
Further legislation in 1894 stated that most shops would be shut from 1 p.m. on one working day a week. Local bodies had the right to decide the day of the week for this half-holiday, and from 1907 electors could have their say by voting at a poll held during local body elections. Disagreements over the best day for the half-holiday often produced heated debate within local communities. Groups such as the Saturday Half Holiday Association, founded by the Softgoods Employees Union in 1915, campaigned for a nationwide half-holiday.
In 1920s New Zealand a weekly half-holiday had become standard, but only some areas held it on Saturdays. Saturday afternoon had become the accepted time for sports matches, while Saturday night was entertainment time for those with the money and the inclination. Since 1917 pubs shut at 6 p.m., but larger towns had cabarets where people could dance to live jazz music. Saturday night was also the big night for going to movies, concerts, variety shows, boxing matches and wrestling bouts. The 1930s saw a decline in Saturday nightlife and shopping, as money became scarce during economic depression. However, going to the movies remained a popular escape from harsh realities. For those who could afford it, nightclubs became a feature of the larger cities.
In the 1930s industrial awards increasingly provided for a 40-hour week. With the Industrial Conciliation Amendment Act 1936 and the Factories Amendment Act 1936 the Labour government fixed a 40-hour week as the standard for most workers in factories and workshops. The government argued that a shorter working week increased employment opportunities in a time of economic depression. The trade unions wanted a 40-hour week for all workers, but shop assistants were excluded from these acts. The Shops and Offices Amendment Act 1936 did limit shop assistants’ hours to 44 a week and guaranteed them a weekly half-holiday starting from noon.
During the 1930s a number of local bodies changed their half-holidays to Saturday. With most workers now on a 40-hour week, and many with a two-day weekend, the shop assistants’ unions campaigned for a five-day shopping week. They encountered strong opposition from many retailers, housewives and farmers. The Shops and Offices Amendment Act 1945 set a 40-hour week for shop assistants. From 1945 until 1980 most shops had a late night on Friday and were shut all day on Saturday.
In the years from 1945 to 1980 weekends for many New Zealanders followed a similar general pattern. Late-night shopping on a Friday provided a time for people to meet and socialise. Friday nights got livelier from 1967 when 6 o’clock closing ended and pubs could open until 10 p.m. Larger towns also had a few late-night venues such as clubs, cabarets and dance halls. Smaller towns had clubs for members, in addition to various illegal late-night drinking and gambling establishments.
To overseas visitors it seemed that New Zealand shut down on Saturdays and Sundays. With few shops open and only a limited number of entertainment venues, most people had to make their own fun. During the 1950s and 1960s Saturday sport continued to be an important social activity in small town and rural New Zealand. Horse racing was widely followed. Fishing, gardening or DIY (do-it-yourself) home maintenance were common Saturday pastimes. In summer people would flock to the beach and other favourite swimming spots. Saturdays were also the time for events such as school fairs.
Movies provided matinee entertainment for younger people and Saturday night fare for older audiences. In rural areas dances and other social events were held. The 1950s saw the arrival of rock ’n’ roll music in New Zealand, appealing to a youth audience. Bands initially played in dance halls and cabarets but, when opening hours were extended, began to play in pubs too. As more people owned cars, driving around on Friday and Saturday nights became a common form of entertainment among young people, often raising concerns among the older population.
A 1950 handbook for European immigrants warned that ‘to the Continental European our Sundays usually appear to be very dull, because no entertainment of any kind is available on that day and normally every week-day activity closes down. Not all New Zealanders agree with this state of affairs, but most of us feel that the old tradition of keeping one day in the week for religious worship and quiet family reunion, is preferable to any other. You must make the best of these things and try not to pass judgment until you understand why they are so.’1
Sundays were even quieter than Saturdays. Sunday newspapers were not made legal until 1965. Sport was generally discouraged on Sundays; no first-class cricket was played on a Sunday until 1968. Sunday television was advertisement-free until 1989. For some people churchgoing remained the main focus of the day. Others saw Sunday as an ideal time to visit relatives, go for a Sunday drive, go to the beach or have a picnic. The idea of Sunday as a quiet day to spend with the family remained important for many people, whether they were churchgoers or not. The day often revolved around the tradition of the Sunday roast.
Weekends were not quite so relaxed for women with families, who were generally expected to do most of the housework and household management. Their weekend might involve supervising children, preparing Sunday dinners and picnic lunches, washing rugby jerseys and organising visits to relatives.
In the 1970s, perhaps because more New Zealanders travelled and experienced life overseas, there was growing dissatisfaction among many over the weekend restrictions. Retailers increasingly found loopholes in the laws or simply risked being fined for trading on Saturdays. The Shop Employees Union campaigned against Saturday trading, arguing that shop employees would lose their weekends. The National government passed the Shop Trading Hours Amendment Act 1980, allowing Saturday trading. An increasing number of shops began to open on Saturdays and the nature of the weekend changed again. Saturday trading also meant the end of Friday late-night shopping, although Friday nights remained a time for people to eat, drink and socialise in town after work.
During the years Sunday trading was restricted there were many inconsistencies and loopholes: ‘On a Saturday you could buy toothpaste, but not shampoo. Sugar could be bought in one-pound bags, while sale of a three-pound bag was illegal. And yet it was perfectly legal to buy three one-pound bags. You were allowed to buy chocolates, milk, bread, eggs and butter and petrol, but it was illegal for someone to sell you a goldfish. For attempting as much, in 1974, Wayne Plank’s Tropical Fish Shop was fined $50 thirty times.’1
Saturdays in many towns became major shopping days, but generally at a more leisurely pace than during the week. Having a weekend brunch at one of the growing number of cafés became a feature of weekends for many people. Saturdays were still the main day for sports activities, although sports events began to be held on Sundays or Friday nights. While many people continued to play and watch sport, it no longer had the central role in communities it had in the past, when few other entertainment options were available. More people took up non-team sports such as windsurfing, mountain biking, tramping and walking.
Saturday markets took off in some parts of the country. The Ōtara market in South Auckland, which had started in 1978 as a charity fundraising venture, became a major institution. The Saturday morning market in Nelson, initiated in 1988, evolved into one of the central events in the local weekly calendar. Markets not only served a commercial function, but were places where people met and socialised.
People continued to go out to entertainment events on Saturday nights, with a much wider range of options available to those in the larger centres. Youth behaviour on Friday and Saturday nights continued to raise concerns, with perennial worries about binge drinking and ‘boy racers’.
In 1989 Sunday trading became legal, spelling the end of the sabbatarian Sunday. By this time many pubs were also open on Sundays, although legally they could only serve patrons who were dining. In 1999 the restrictions on Sunday opening for licensed premises were removed. Shops, pubs, art galleries and museums were now open on Sundays, but the day still tended to be more relaxed than Saturdays or weekdays. For many people Sunday continued to be a day for family activities.
Clark, Alison. ‘A godly rhythm: keeping the sabbath in Otago, 1870–1890.’ In Building God’s own country: historical essays on religions in New Zealand, edited by John Stenhouse and Jane Thomson, 46–59. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2004.
Hince, Kevin, and others. Opening hours: history of the Wellington Shop Employees Union. Wellington: Central Distribution Workers Union; Industrial Relations Centre, Victoria University, 1990.
Jones, Lloyd, and Bruce Foster. Last Saturday. Wellington: Victoria University Press for the National Library of New Zealand, 1994.
Martin, John E. Holding the balance: a history of New Zealand’s Department of Labour, 1891–1995. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1996.
Rybczynski, Witold. Waiting for the weekend. New York: Viking Penguin, 1991.