Anzac Day took on a new meaning in a time of peace. 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 mournful funeral.
The status of Anzac Day was not clear 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 to 25 April and declare that day to be a government holiday. There was little support for this. Government holidays tended to be religious observances or patriotic occasions, and Dominion Day, the self-styled national day, possessed no emotional appeal.
Anzac Day had strong public appeal. In 1920 the government responded to Returned Services’ Association (RSA) lobbying for 25 April to be declared a holiday; the first was marked in 1921. Legislation making the day a holiday also 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 as if it were a Sunday.
The features of Anzac Day evolved during the 1920s and 1930s. Public war memorials erected in the 1920s took the place of town halls or churches in the ceremony. 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 mournful funeral. The laying of wreaths became more central to the ceremony, and there were fewer speeches and hymns. Uniformed members of the armed forces became accepted in many places as participants 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 (although some centres, such as Whanganui, had included dawn parades in their commemorations for several years before this). The cold and darkness breaking into sunrise added to the symbolism of the occasion.
Common themes in the speeches were nationhood, national and imperial loyalty, sacrifice and peace. During the Depression, Anzac Day speeches mentioned the ideals of unity and selflessness. As the international situation deteriorated in the 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.