Eric Watson: Redefine holidays and holy days

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New Zealand is growing in ethnic and religious diversity. Photo / NZ Herald
New Zealand is growing in ethnic and religious diversity. Photo / NZ Herald

On an Air New Zealand flight recently, a trivia question caught my eye. "Name the New Zealand public holidays on which shops must close for at least part of the day?"

Answer: Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Anzac Day and Christmas.

I found it interesting that three of our four "most important" public holidays are holy days, and they are Christian.

This brought back memories of solemn days when I was an altar boy. Yes, although some of you might find this hard to believe, Eric Watson was, at one stage, an altar boy. In fact, I can claim the whole Catholic nine yards — christening, altar boy, schooled by nuns at Addington Convent and by Marist Brothers at Xavier College in Christchurch then confirmed a Catholic as a teenager. But I digress.

I started thinking about the answer to the trivia question and whether it is reflective of the composition of New Zealand today.

A quick check of last year's Census results was an eye-opener. It's important to put this in context, but of the people who responded to the question about religious affiliation (about 95 per cent of all responses), fewer than half (ie. 48.9 per cent) responded that they are affiliated with a Christian religion.

Even more surprising, this is down from more than 60 per cent in the 2001 census. Clearly the composition of New Zealand has changed. One in eight people living now identify themselves as being of Asian ethnicity; in Auckland, the ratio is one in four.

Does this mean we need to look at how we define public holidays? Are there potentially a large number of New Zealanders who feel aggrieved because our "most important" public holidays are Christian holy days?

I suspect the answer is "yes", but not for the reason you think. It turns out that just 10 per cent of the people in this country affiliate with a religion that is not Christian. The most surprising fact from the census results for me was that a substantial 42 per cent (who responded to the religion question) said they actually have no religion. That's right, the atheists and non-believers are almost equal in number to Christians.


Are there a large number of New
Zealanders who feel aggrieved
because our 'most important' public
holidays are Christian holy days?

As an inclusive society that wants its citizens to be treated fairly, do we need to rethink the appropriateness of religious public holidays? Is it presumptuous to begin public events with a prayer? And the big question: Why should religious organisations be exempted from income tax?

Although that's probably a separate opinion piece.

Just this month, The Daily Mail produced a map showing that the United States' population of 317 million people is representative of every country and faith in the world.

As a result, for some time now the US has approached holidays differently. It doesn't have public holidays, like New Zealand, in that it doesn't have days when all businesses are closed by law and employees have a day off. Instead, there are a number of "recognised" holidays and employees select those important to them. These might include Chinese New Year, Ramadan, Passover or Easter, but also Martin Luther King Day, Veterans Day, Independence Day and Thanksgiving.

It's great that people get to take off the most meaningful days to them.

Given that the latest census results show 42 per cent identified with having no religion, is it time to recognise that the makeup of New Zealand is changing and that what we've accepted as the norm may no longer be appropriate for a significant percentage of Kiwis?


Eric Watson is a businessman and Warriors co-owner.

- Herald on Sunday

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