New Zealand Culture and Traditions: What to Know

New Zealand Culture and Traditions

From the dramatic Milford Sound to the endless beaches of the North Island, it’s impossible not to think of breathtaking landscapes when you think of New Zealand. Yet, what surprises visitors the most is the unique and warm New Zealand culture and traditions.

A melting pot of ethnicities, along with its location at the bottom of the world, has shaped New Zealand’s distinctive culture filled with Kiwi (the term New Zealanders call themselves) ingenuity. 

Fascinating wildlife, vast stretches of undisturbed land, an embracing of the indigenous people’s way of life, and influences from abroad all guide the Kiwi way of life. Before you visit, be sure to learn the ins and outs of New Zealand culture and traditions and there’s no doubt you’ll gain even more respect for this easy-to-love country.

What is the main culture in New Zealand?

Coast in NZ
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New Zealand is a relatively young country and many different groups have immigrated and brought their own culture and traditions with them. With time, these different influences mixed to create the fascinating and diverse culture that Kiwis embrace today.

The first group to arrive and settle in New Zealand were the Māori, with their many legends and deep care for the environment and each other. Afterward, waves of migrant groups found their way to New Zealand, each bringing their own culture and traditions. While conflict was strife, especially between the Māori and European settlers, New Zealand has found its way to a peaceful, easy-going, and all-inclusive culture.

Traditional customs are still followed by many Tongans, Samoans, and other Pacific peoples, and the culture of the Pākehā (the Māori term for those of European descent) has come to embrace many aspects of the Māori way of life.

Today, you’ll find a culture that loves sport, especially rugby and cricket. Kiwis also love the outdoors, with some of the best hiking in the world easily accessible around the country. On the South Island, skiing is another popular pastime, and on the North Island, where the climate is milder, sailing is a popular sport. On top of these, New Zealand is the perfect home for adrenaline junkies with bungee jumping, sky-diving and paragliding in abundance.

What is Māori Culture in New Zealand?

NZ Flag

The Māori people are the indigenous people of New Zealand and first arrived over 1000 years ago. A deeply spiritual culture, many of their beliefs and traditions still hold firm throughout New Zealand today.

Manaakitanga is the Māori passion toward welcoming guests and creating great hospitality. A feeling you are sure to experience while visiting or living in New Zealand. Kaitiakitanga is another distinct part of Māori culture, which is the respect and guardianship of the natural world. You’ll notice very little litter in nature and how Kiwis have a natural care for the environment. 

Today you’ll continue to find hints of Māori culture used throughout the country and the language taught at schools and free classes for adults. Some interesting things to know about Māori culture and traditions include:

Māori culture was on the brink of extinction

When the European settlers arrived, it was expected and sometimes forced that the Māori assimilate into the European lifestyle. With the use of the Māori language fading and its customs and traditions becoming less known and celebrated, many aspects of the Māori way of life were disappearing. Luckily, since the 1950s, there has been a cultural renaissance with the teaching of te Reo (the Māori language), the celebration of the Māori holidays, and incorporating many aspects of Māori culture into everyday life.

Māori legends

Māori culture is filled with legends, each explaining how landscapes came to be and why the world is the way it is. For example, Māori legend has it that the South Island is Māui’s canoe, the North Island is the fish he hauled up, and Stewart Island was the canoe’s anchor. If you look at a map of New Zealand, it’s easy to understand why this is believed.

If you find yourself in Milford Sound, be sure to ask a local about the legend of how sand flies came to be. It may make you hate them a tad bit less.

Māori words to know

The Māori language is known as te Reo, and you’ll notice its use as you step off the plane. Some great words to know include:

  • Kia ora = welcome, express gratitude, and even send love and wish good health
  • Kia kaha = stay strong
  • Aotearoa = New Zealand, translated to the land of the long white cloud
  • Koha = gift, you may be asked for a koha to enter an event, which typically means a gold coin donation
  • Kai = food
  • Aroha = love

Learn a few of these, and you are sure to impress the locals.

What are some traditions in New Zealand?

caping in NZ
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From the age-old traditions stemming from Māori culture to strange traditions which no one is quite sure where they originated, New Zealand has more than its fair share. When visiting, keep your eye out for these traditions.

The Haka – If you’re a rugby fan, you’ll no doubt have seen the haka. This traditional Māori war dance has been made famous by New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team, who perform the ritual before every game. These pre-battle dances are performed to provoke fear in the enemy, and we must say, it works.

The Hongi – To the unexpecting, the hongi can seem like an invasive into your personal space. However, in Māori culture, it’s the equivalent of an intimate, thoughtful handshake. The hongi is also known as the breath of life and occurs when two people press their noses and foreheads together. Don’t worry, you won’t be greeted off the plane or into restaurants with a hongi as it’s reserved for special occasions and welcoming visitors onto Māori grounds.

A Hangi – Similar sounding to the hongi but very different. A hangi is a traditional Māori cooking method. Heated rocks are placed in a deep hole, meat and vegetables are placed inside, and the hole is covered. In a few hours, you have a delicious roast ready to feed the entire community.

Crate Day – This one is seen mainly at universities and amongst the younger crowd. On the first Saturday of December, each participant must drink (or share) a crate of beer to welcome summer. Spotting this tradition is easy. Just look for a group of teenagers wearing singlets, stubbies, and jandals!

Gumboot Day – If you’ve been to New Zealand, you’ll know Kiwis love their gumboots. So much so, they even have a national day to celebrate it. On the Tuesday after Easter, you’ll find crowds of people attempting to beat the world record for the longest gumboot throw – and celebrate all things gumboot. 

What are the main holidays in New Zealand?

House in New Zealand
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New Zealand has many of the same public holidays and bank holidays as the USA and the UK, including Christmas, Good Friday, Easter Monday, and Labor Day. New Zealand also has holidays unique to its history and traditions. These include:

Waitangi Day – Celebrated on February 6, Waitangi Day is the anniversary of signing the Treaty of Waitangi between 40 Māori chiefs and the English Crown. It’s considered New Zealand’s national day, and you’ll find most places of business closed with ceremonies and parades held around the country.

Anzac Day – This holiday, on April 25, honors those who have served in New Zealand’s military forces, especially those who have lost their life. On this day, you’ll find dawn services throughout the country, and most stores are closed until 1 pm.

Queen’s Birthday – While more of a British holiday, because the Queen is the head of state of New Zealand, New Zealand also celebrates this holiday on the Monday closest to June 6. Kiwis take it as a chance to enjoy a long weekend at their bach (cabin) or head out for a multi-day hike.

Does New Zealand celebrate Christmas?

Christmas tree in home
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Yes, in fact, Kiwis take their Christmas holiday very seriously and it’s a big part of New Zealand culture and traditions. Between mid-December and the second week of January, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Kiwi not in the hospitality business working. The entire country seems to shut down, and everyone heads to their beaches.

As it’s summer in New Zealand, celebrations look much different than traditional Christmas ones. Long daylight hours and warm weather mean you’ll find beaches overflowing, barbecue’s being smelled from every backyard, and backcountry huts filled to the brim. It’s a time to enjoy the company of both family and friends, to take a break from working, and enjoy the beautiful outdoors ever so present in New Zealand.

If you happen to be in New Zealand for Christmas, you may just fall in love with the laid-back Kiwi Christmas. Or as they say, Meri Kirihimete!

What is New Zealand food culture like?

Food in NZ
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New Zealand food culture is a melting pot of influences from across the globe and local delicacies. Along the coast, you’ll find fresh seafood, and across the country, you’ll find lamb, venison, and beef very popular.

Local favorites include meat pies, sausage rolls, fish n chips, and the rather strange whitebait fritter. Every town has a local dairy or pie shop, where you can grab yourself a quick snack and wash it down with an L&P – New Zealand’s own soft drink.

Some things to keep in mind when eating out in New Zealand include:

  • You don’t have to tip. Tips are built into the price of meals, and tipping is not expected. Although tipping is still appreciated if you feel like your server has gone above and beyond, or you’re at a more high-end restaurant.
  • Pay at the counter. Don’t wait around for your server to bring your bill. Instead, when you’re done eating, pop up to the counter or bar to pay there. It’s acceptable to only pay for what you’ve ordered when dining with a group too. You’ll also notice at some places, especially pubs and cafes, you’ll order and pay at the counter before eating.
  • Don’t expect ice in your water. Ice machines are not common in New Zealand, and unless you specifically ask for ice water, you’ll nearly always be served it without. If your server has brought you water, look around for clear glass bottles filled with tap water, and feel free to bring one to your table.
  • Coffee is delicious, and it doesn’t matter when you order it. Kiwis know how to make good coffee. Expect to pay more than your standard drip coffee, but it’s well worth it. If you’re unsure what to order, know that a long black or Americano is black coffee, and flat whites and cappuccinos are espresso mixed with hot steamed milk.

5 cultural differences to know when traveling to New Zealand

New Zealand coast
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Being on their own, far away from other countries besides Australia, Kiwis have a few quirks. Of course, you’ll grow to love these differences, but upon first arrival, they may catch you off guard.

  1. Everyone loves birds. We’re not kidding, and if you spend enough time in New Zealand, there’s no doubt you’ll also become a birder. Without any natural predators and few dangerous animals, the birds in New Zealand are unique and full of character – from the famous flightless kiwi bird to the cheeky kea alpine parrot.
  2. Respect the land and be ready for four seasons in one day. New Zealanders have a deep-rooted love and respect for their land. Never litter, and if you ever accidentally drop garbage, be sure to pick it up. As nature is ever so present, it’s also important to pack plenty of layers no matter which season you visit. In one day, you can see sun, snow, rain, and wind.
  3. It’s all about the slang. Kiwis love their slang, and if you don’t know better, it’s easy to think they’re speaking a different language. Jandals is the kiwi slang for flip-flops, ta is short for thank you, togs are swimming suits, and yah, nah is the Kiwi noncommittal way of saying no.
  4. Rugby is everything. When an All Blacks game is on, expect every bar to be filled and everyone talking about the game. If you’re not a fan of rugby, it’s best to steer clear.
  5. Things are laid back in New Zealand. Not many things are on time in New Zealand, and if someone is a few minutes late, don’t worry. They’re likely on their way. The same goes if you need work done on your car or house. Things will get done when they get done. As the Kiwis say, she’ll be alright.

For more than 11 years, Joe has worked as a freelance travel writer. His writing and explorations have brought him to various locations, including the colonial towns of Mexico, the bustling chowks of Mumbai, and the majestic Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not crafting his next epic blog post on the top Greek islands or French ski resorts, he can often be found engaging in his top two hobbies of surfing and hiking.

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