Waitangi Day is a national holiday much misunderstood by New Zealanders and absolutely baffling to anyone else.
I explained it a number of times on Saturday, with my apparently unquenchable desire to spread the kiwi spirit to anyone who will listen (or beat their ears in if they won’t), combined with the bewilderment and curiosity of passers-by witnessing the menagerie of costumes en masse on what they thought was any other Saturday.
To answer their questions:
- No, it’s not like Australia Day (aka BBQ and booze day), which celebrates the landing of Europeans in Oz and the proclamation of European sovereignty.
- No, it’s not like the USA’s Independence day (aka BBQ and booze day), as NZ remains a part of the British Commonwealth and Maori certainly didn’t gain any independence from it.
- It is, however, the closest thing to either of these that NZ has as a ‘national holiday’ (and bizarrely, not much of a BBQ and booze day, unlike every other Summer [holi]day).
What it represents (in a very simplified nutshell) is the signing in 1840 of the Treaty of Waitangi, named after the town it was signed in and pronounced ‘why-tongue-ee’, or ‘wye-tang-ee’ if you’re Wikipedia and haven’t learnt correct Maori pronunciation. This set out a (much-misrepresented) agreement between European Settlers and Maori tribe leaders from around Te Wai Pounamu and Te Ika a Maui about the ongoing government of the country.
Much like the sale of Manhatten for US$24, the trade or forced transactions of vast tracts of virtually-untouched, forested land in exchange for modern commodities such as guns, textiles, and non-native foodstuffs is a contentious issue that still resonates awkwardly through NZ society. One of the biggest issues is that the English version of the Treaty determined sovereignty of Queen Victoria over all, whereas the Maori translation indicated joint-government of the nation. A 19th Century Bad Translator for sure!
This may seem a strange day and document to celebrate, and it remains contentious in the 21st century, but it also represents the founding of the nation as we know it today. It’s not exactly ‘celebrated’ back home – it’s a day off, far enough since New Years that you’re hanging out for a holiday; it’s a good day for a barbi, falling in the height of Summer; and it’s a compulsory annual topic from primary school through to intermediate and secondary and even some tertiary institutions.
London is both the place where many of the Treaty signers came from (desperate to leave the stinking hole that it must have been at the time), and where many modern Kiwis traipse back to (desperate to relive the glory of the ‘Motherland’). Somehow it is both fitting and bewildering then, that Waitangi Day is celebrated in London with a vim and vigour never seen on the shores of Aotearoa (“ow-tay-a-row-a”, with a rolled ‘r’ if you can swing it).
On the 6th of Feb, or the closest Saturday to it, what seems like the vast majority of all Kiwis in London take part in the Waitangi Day Circle Line Pub Crawl. This involves following the path of the Circle Line Tube in hop-on-hop-off fashion, in Kiwiana-related costume, supposedly drinking a half pint at every stop, and making it to Parliament Square in time for a very disorganised but rousing rendition of the Haka from whichever foolhardy lads feel like taking their tops off mid-Winter.
This year, the powers that be decided that the Circle Line was in urgent need of a rest on the very day of the event. Coincidence? We think not, but never fear, Kiwis may not be able to fly, but they can certainly walk, especially when shielded from the cold by a woolly costume and a booze-blanket.
So, after a stomach-lining breakfast at HS and MS’s nearby pad (accompanied by a bottle of champers and OJ), we put on our sheep costumes and joined the throng at Notting Hill at 10am. Children were delighted and pointed excitedly as bewildered posh parents asked what on earth it was all about. One little old granny asked me which way we were going and I reassured her that we would soon be off out of her way. She said ‘no dear! I want to follow and watch!’
We soon made new friends with fellow sheep and made repeated jokes about following the wrong flock home, har har. The cows likewise asked everyone to moooooove out of their way, and such puns somehow became funnier the more they were used. The farmers naturally tried to round us up and/or violate us, but since we all looked the same from behind, more often than not they’d just humped one of the lads rather vigrorously and their pink cheeks weren’t just from the sneaky swigs out of the hip flasks.
Somehow I only went inside two pubs the whole day. We had two with us with bladders the size of teeny-tiny baby peas and so made the oh-so-sensible decision to get ahead of the crowd a touch to avoid the 40 minute bathroom and bar queues. This fell to the wayside however when we realised all the royal parks have spanking clean, well-supplied, and little-known bathrooms, and if you’re in a sheep costume, you obviously have to crawl under the barrier, coz what sheep has 50p on them?! We were also among many other equally genius folks who realised buying a voddy from the offy to tip into a coke was a lot cheaper than the beer in bars, and the cops were a) on to us but b) didn’t care as long as there was no glass, no obvious booze bottles, and we were well-behaved and sticking to pavements.
I was seriously surprised at how good the crowd was, and rather patriotically pleased at my countryfolk’s ability to have a grand ol’ time without destroying everything in sight. There were no arrests (again) and nothing worse than a few too-drunksies, and the Kiwis in London peeps said Police they had talked to (who had volunteered to work on the day) were excited to do it again next year. I can’t remember where I saw it (ahem, don’t mean to plagiarise) but one cop apparently said something like us estimated 4000 Kiwis traipsing across London, drinking since the wee hours, were a lot less hassle than 100 English football fans. Booyah!
Hopefully this means that the tradition will continue for another 14 years. I may have been mildly dubious beforehand, but I can only support it if in future years it displays to the London public the Kiwi exhuberance, friendliness, and politeness towards the people around them (even whilst smashed); the creativity in crafting uniquely-New-Zealand costumes that make everyone feel part of a home-away-from-home; the camaraderie in mourning a fellow fallen KIL; and the desire of a still-young nation to make it’s mark in the world and on the world, no matter how far from home its people may be.
- London Kiwis pay tribute to man killed by sign (nzherald.co.nz)
- Waitangi Day Aotearoa (cpitlibrary.wordpress.com)
- Shearer urges honours on Waitangi Day (stuff.co.nz)
- Waitangi elders vow to keep control at marae (radionz.co.nz)
- Maori water rights likely to be main discussion at Waitangi (radionz.co.nz)
- Key’s Waitangi welcome uncertain (stuff.co.nz)
- Let’s be proud of our legacies (stuff.co.nz)
- Celebrating the Treaty of Waitangi (cmdhbceoblog.wordpress.com)
- Titewhai Harawira wins over escorting PM at Waitangi (radionz.co.nz)
- From the Curators: Pandora Celebrates Waitangi Day (pandora.com)