Anzac Day took on a new meaning in peacetime. Most New Zealanders saw it as a time to express sorrow, not to glorify war. It became a sacred day, but one that was secular in tone and less like a funeral.

A public holiday

The legal status of Anzac Day was unclear until the early 1920s. Peace was celebrated from 19 to 21 July 1919, but there was no official day of commemoration for the war. The government was prepared to move St George’s Day (usually 23 April) to 25 April and declare it a government holiday, but there was little support for this. Government holidays tended to be religious observances or patriotic occasions, and Dominion Day, the self-styled national day, had no emotional appeal.

Anzac Day, on the other hand, had strong public appeal. Returned soldiers who marched on Anzac Day in 1919 were angry that some shops remained open. In 1920 the government responded to Returned Services’ Association (RSA) lobbying by declaring 25 April a holiday; the first was marked in 1921. Legislation making the day a holiday closed hotels and banks and prohibited race meetings, but this did not meet RSA demands for the day to be ‘Sundayised’. In 1922 the government backed down, and 25 April became a full public holiday observed as if it were a Sunday.

Nationhood and peace

Anzac Day evolved during the 1920s and 1930s. Public war memorials erected in the 1920s replaced town halls and churches as ceremonial sites. In the process, the ceremony itself became less overtly religious. There were occasional protests from churches, but it was RSA leaders, servicemen and local politicians who increasingly made the speeches, rather than clergymen.

Gradually the service became less like a funeral. The laying of wreaths became more central to the ceremony, and there were fewer speeches and hymns. In many places, uniformed members of the armed forces took part in the march and service.

New Zealand’s Anzac Day services began to include new features taken, appropriately, from the Anzac partner. The dawn parade, commemorating both the time of the initial landings at Gallipoli and the routine dawn stand-to in the trenches, was an Australian idea. It was widely adopted in New Zealand from 1939 (some centres, such as Whanganui, had held dawn parades for several years). The symbolism of cold and darkness giving way to sunrise added to the sense of occasion.

Common themes in the speeches were nationhood, national and imperial loyalty, sacrifice, and peace. During the Depression, Anzac Day speeches emphasised ideals of unity and selflessness. As the international situation deteriorated in the late 1930s, Anzac Day speeches focused on the need for defence preparations and the importance of not forgetting past lessons. The number of marchers grew as returned servicemen became more interested in commemorating their war experiences through public ritual. Anzac Day began to take on the features of an annual reunion.

How to cite this page

'A sacred holiday', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/anzac-day-1920-45, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 16-Apr-2020