Waitangi Day in New Zealand: What’s It All About?

Restored ceremonial canoe

If you are visiting New Zealand on February 6th, you’ll be part of Waitangi Day, our national holiday.  New Zealand is unique among former British colonies as it has a treaty, signed in 1840 between the Maori chiefs through New Zealand, and the ‘Crown’. That’s the British Government at the time, and the New Zealand government now. The Treaty was signed by the first chiefs at Waitangi, in the Bay of Islands, on the sixth of February.

What is the Treaty of Waitangi?

The treaty was written in both Maori and English, and handed governorship of New Zealand to the British. It allowed settlers to purchase land peacefully, and meant that the British could establish rule of law. In return, they were to guarantee and protect Maori tribal authority over their possessions.

The intentions of the Treaty of Waitangi have continued to be part of the laws and policies of modern day New Zealand.  Waitangi Day was established as a public holiday in 1974, and is celebrated on February 6th, with a day off work on the Monday after, should it fall on the weekend.

How can you experience Waitangi Day as a Visitor?

How can visitors participate in the day, in a way that adds something to your total New Zealand experience?

The treaty grounds at Waitangi are worth a visit whenever you are in New Zealand. On Waitangi Day itself, they are the scene of formal ceremonies, and a family-friendly festival. The day begins with a dawn ceremony at Te Whare Runanga, the ornately carved meeting house. Ngatokimatawhaorua, a beautifully restored war canoe made of native kauri logs, has an annual outing on Waitangi Day, and is a wonderful spectacle.

flags on Waitangi Day

If you prefer to visit without the crowds, the grounds are open all year round. Take a guided tour to give you some insight into the history of the area. Read more about this, and other things to do while in the Bay of Islands at our Kerikeri Airport travel guide.

Back in the big smoke of Auckland, one of the biggest Waitangi Day events is held at Bastion Point in Orakei. Bastion Point was the scene of a long running land-dispute, but is now a public space administered jointly by local Maori (Ngati Whatua) and the Auckland Council. It is fitting that this is a venue for a day of festivities including live music, kai (food) stalls, art and crafts, and giant Manu Aute kites, flying against a stunning backdrop of the Waitemata harbour and Rangitoto Island. The day’s festivities are open to all.

Wellington has a day of celebrations at Waitangi Park on the waterfront, including Kapa Haka. In Rotorua, Waitangi Day is commemorated at Whakarewarewa, a living Maori village. Activities focus of Maori culture, kai, crafts and Maori medicine.

Down south, they are celebrating the more colonial aspects of New Zealand history. In Queenstown over Waitangi weekend, they will run the Hilux New Zealand Rural Games, celebrating the ‘sports that built the nation’ such as fencing, wood-chopping and coal-shovelling.

Where ever you find yourself on the day, there’s bound to be an opportunity to reflect on the uniqueness of New Zealand. For many New Zealanders, and visitors, it is a day to spend with friends and family, maybe at the beach, as it is the height of summer. Even if your road trip has you far from festivities, have a look around, and see how the principles of bi-culturalism are lived by the ordinary Kiwis in their everyday life. It may be in those place-names you’ve struggled to pronounce, the marine-reserve where you saw those amazing fish, or a Kapa Haka group at a public event. These are all the reasons we celebrate Waitangi Day.

If you enjoyed this blog post written by Carolyn Cossey, take time to read her articles published at NewZealand.com including a local’s guide to Queenstown, Arrowtown, and Auckland. 

Leave a Reply