Celebrating New Zealand's Waitangi Day

Waitangi Day is a public holiday held on 6 February every year to commemorate the signing of New Zealand's founding document - the Treaty of Waitangi - in 1840.

1st February 2018

The national holiday was first declared in 1974, and since then has grown in significance for all New Zealanders through the Māori renaissance that has fostered better understanding of the Treaty’s ramifications.

Official celebrations are held at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds in the Bay of Islands, Northland, but there are also many other events throughout the country.

Image: Sepia photo of traditional maori boy

Waitangi – The Early Days

The Treaty of Waitangi was signed on the grounds of James Busby’s house in Waitangi in 1840. James Busby was the British Resident for New Zealand at the time and had, six years earlier, drafted the Declaration of Independence of New Zealand which the treaty sought to replace. The signing of these two documents guaranteed the site a place in New Zealand history.

It took almost another hundred years, though, for the significance of the Treaty of Waitangi to begin to be marked in any public way.

In the early 1930s Governor-General Lord Bledisloe bought James Busby’s house and grounds and in 1934 gifted them to the nation in the hope that they would serve to symbolise the uniting effects the Treaty of Waitangi had had on the population of New Zealand.

Waitangi Commemorated

The celebrations held at the site in 1934 to mark Bledisloe’s gift might be considered to be the very first Waitangi Day. Annual celebrations, however, did not commence from this date and commemorations of nationhood continued, as they had up to that date, to be held on the 29th of January – the date in 1840 when William Hobson arrived as Lieutenant-Governor of New Zealand in the Bay of Islands.

Although the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi was observed at the Waitangi site in 1940, it was not until 1947 that yearly commemorations of Waitangi Day began. In that year a Royal New Zealand Navy ceremony was held at Waitangi. It was a low-key event and featured no Maori. In subsequent years, though, the ceremony grew in stature and Maori participation increased steadily. By 1958 the importance of the event to the country had grown to such an extent that the Prime Minister began to attend.

Public Holiday

The first proposal that Waitangi Day be made a public holiday was mooted in 1957 by the New Zealand Labour Party. 
After their election, though, rather than create an entirely new public holiday, Labour passed the 1960 Waitangi Day Act.image: facts about waitangi dayThis allowed individual localities to redesignate an existing public holiday as Waitangi Day. For instance, in 1963 Auckland Anniversary Day became Waitangi Day for Northland.

In 1971 Matiu Rata, Labour shadow minister for Maori Affairs, introduced a private members’ bill to make Waitangi Day a national public holiday in its own right. This bill failed, but after a successful 1972 election, Labour announced that from 1974 the 6th of February would be a national holiday called New Zealand Day.

The Final Step

And so we had our new Waitangi holiday in everything but name. The final step in the process came with the election of the National government in 1975. The combination of Prime Minister Robert Muldoon’s personal dislike for the name New Zealand Day, and Maori sentiment, which tended to feel that it undermined the importance of the Treaty of Waitangi, led in 1976 to the passing to a second Waitangi Day Act which renamed New Zealand Day… Waitangi Day.

Traditional activities

Māori cultural performances, speeches from Māori and Pakeha (European) dignitaries, and a naval salute are all part of the annual activities at Waitangi.

The Ngatokimatawhaorua, one of the world’s largest Māori ceremonial waka (war canoe), sits on the grounds at Waitangi. The 70-year-old waka was refurbished and relaunched for the 170th celebrations in 2010.

Each February, Ngatokimatawhaorua must be prepared for its Waitangi Day outing prior to the big event. Made from massive trunks of New Zealand’s giant kauri trees, the gigantic waka - which weighs an incredible six tonne when dry - must first be moved by human force across the Treaty grounds and down to the sea. It is then moored in the water for up to two days allowing the wood to swell and become airtight, thus doubling the weight.

Carried out and blessed by members of the local iwi / Māori tribe, this is a tradition that happens only once a year to celebrate Waitangi Day. The enormous wooden vessel, with room for 80 paddlers and 55 passengers, is an impressive sight both on land and on the water.

Waitangi also hosts a festival on the special day that includes music, dance, food and traditional Māori customs.

New Zealand-wide celebrations

Waitangi Day celebrations happen all over New Zealand.

In Auckland - New Zealand’s largest city - the national day is celebrated near the city’s birthplace at Bastion Point. It was at Orakei, in 1841, that Auckland Māori chiefs invited Governor Hobson to create the city. This family-focused event features live entertainment, kai / Māori food and kite flying with the spectacular coastal backdrop of the Waitemata Harbour and Rangitoto Island. 

The celebrations don’t stop there, with family friendly events taking place across the city. Picnics, local food stalls, traditional kapa-haka, music and entertainment will all be in abundance on Waitangi Day in Auckland. 

Wellington - the nation’s capital - holds an event that celebrates Waitangi Day at Waitangi Park on the city's waterfront. Traditional Maori culture is showcased through a range of activities including a waka fleet exhibition, Te Aro Pā walking tours, weaving, waka building, Māori myths and legends storytelling, and kapa haka.

In geothermal Rotorua, Waitangi Day is commemorated at Whakarewarewa - a living Māori village - with an event known as 'Whakanuia'. This Māori word means ‘to acknowledge, promote and celebrate’, and the day's activities centre on learning about Māori cultural activities, including indigenous kai / food, crafts, Māori medicine, local legends and history.

Elsewhere, Waitangi Day celebrations cover all sorts of occasions from major sporting events to rodeos, and even a folk music festival.

Travel Tips

Paihia is just over 3 hours’ drive from Auckland, or an hour from Whangarei. National bus services run between Paihia and Auckland (about 4 hours), as well as surrounding towns; or hop aboard an Air New Zealand flight to Kerikeri, just 20 minutes’ drive away. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds are situated just 2km from the town – an easy 25-minute walk along the waterfront or 2-minute drive.  


For more information about Waitangi Day, see https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/treaty/waitangi-day.


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