Why Matariki Should Be a National Holiday in New Zealand

Te Papa Matariki Ritual 2017
Te Papa Matariki Ritual 2017 | © Photograph Te Papa
As New Zealand enters its winter season, a cluster of stars known as the Pleiades appears in the night sky. For Māori, this marks the start of a new year that is known as Matariki, the same name given in Te Reo (the indigenous Māori language) to the Pleiades cluster. The event, although increasingly celebrated country-wide, isn’t a national holiday, but many, like the national Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa), believe that it deserves special recognition.

Matariki and the New Zealand identity

Creative director of Matariki at Te Papa, Dr Charles Royal, told Culture Trip that the Māori New Year could provide New Zealanders with an opportunity to reflect on their collective identity and history.

In comparison to other countries, New Zealand has very few significant events when we take time as a nation to reflect on our place in the world and what it means to be a New Zealander.

Te Papa, Royal adds, has been developing its own strategies to elevate Matariki’s status as a culturally significant celebration in recent years because it believes all Kiwis should embrace the traditions as their own.

I think people are looking for an expression of national culture — an event of national unity across the diversity of the country. We should shape Matariki into such an event — for all, by all, with elements which are inspired by our indigenous Māori culture.

Te Papa Matariki Ritual 2017 © Photograph Te Papa

Embracing the event’s universal themes

You may ask yourself what makes Matariki so special. For Royal, it is the fact that its values and themes are universal:

It is a time of renewal, a time to gather with family and friends, to acknowledge those who have passed in the year gone by and discuss our hopes and aspirations for the year ahead.

Traditionally, Māori would light up fires and cook food to mark Matariki — a gesture that, according to Royal, has always carried a strong sense of connection between the living, spiritual and natural world.

It is said that the food aroma would be a conduit for releasing the spirit of loved ones that had died in the year gone by. It is said that Matariki would descend from the skies and partake of the food and be nourished. Nourishing the stars, nourishing the universe.

Even to this day, Royal adds, we could embrace these lessons and apply them to our present-day lives:

[Matariki] provides an important opportunity to come together, to remember those that have passed, to celebrate one another and to express our hope and aspirations. It’s also an opportunity to connect with nature and the cycles of the natural world. Taking time out of our busy schedules to acknowledge and reflect on these things is as important now as it always was.

Te Papa Matariki Ritual 2017 © Photograph Te Papa

The Maori New Year in contemporary times

In ancient times, Matariki marked the beginning of the year in the maramataka, the Māori lunar calendar. Celebrations were eminent until the 20th century, when interest in Matariki declined. From the 1940s until the early 21st century, observances of the Māori New Year were practically non-existent.

Te Papa is among the key players that helped reignite the country’s interest in the event. The museum’s annual Matariki festivities started in 2001, and have been growing steadily ever since; they have been marked by storytelling sessions, lectures, seminars, dance and musical performances as well as Māori cuisine showcases and special celebratory dinners.

Te Papa Matariki Ritual 2017 © Photograph Te Papa

Along with raising awareness about Matariki and getting the community involved in festivities, Te Papa has also been monitoring how public perception of the event has changed in recent times.

In 2017, the museum conducted a national survey to get a picture of the wider public perception of the event. The results, Royal tells us, were quite promising:

The study revealed that actual participation in Matariki events has grown from 8% to 19% of the population in the last three years. It also showed that Matariki has a solid base of awareness within NZ, with 69% of the overall population aware of it.

Te Papa Ritual 2017 © Photograph Te Papa

Royal says that while there is still a way to go before Matariki has the same awareness as, for example, Chinese New Year, recent talks about making it a national holiday show that things are moving in the right direction.

Calls to create a national holiday are an interesting reflection of the growing interest in Matariki. We need to continue to grow participation in and understanding of Matariki, but I think the timing is right for Matariki to take its place as an important national occasion.

In the meantime, it is up to New Zealanders to continue to reflect on Matariki’s national significance.

While it would be great to have it marked by a national holiday, what is more important is that we take the time to acknowledge who we are, to express love for these islands that we call our home and foster quality relationships between each other and the natural world.