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Design: Tina Tiller
Design: Tina Tiller

ĀteaJuly 13, 2023

Your last-minute guide to celebrating Matariki

Design: Tina Tiller
Design: Tina Tiller

The Māori New Year is a celebratory time for rediscovery, re-energising, reflection, remembrance and resetting. Here’s how you can take part. 

I was busy last year and missed all the Matariki explainers. What’s the lowdown?

The upcoming July 14 public holiday is only one day of the Māori New Year period – Matariki covers several weeks, usually between May and July, although specific dates vary annually. Sightings of Te Kahui o Matariki (the Matariki star cluster) across much of the motu symbolise the coming of the New Year. 

Although the public holiday is named after Matariki, some tangata whenua devote this period to other whetu (stars), like Puanga (Rigel) and Rehua (Antares), depending on what is visible from their tūrangawaewae (homeland). No matter the terminology, this is a time to come together to celebrate, learn, reflect and set intentions for the year to come. It is also an important moment to honour and reconnect with the dead. Precisely how you do all that is up to you. You can hold hākari (feasts), attend wānanga (forums for learning through discussion), visit the urupā (cemetery) or attend mana whenua ceremonies – but be warned, some events are pre-sunrise! 

This time last year on The Spinoff, Simon Day interviewed Dr Rangi Mātāmua, “the humble superstar of Matariki“. “Go with what your puku tells you to do. Say what’s in your heart,” Mātāmua advised. “There’s no wrong way of doing it. The main thing is you do it with the right intentions.” He added that after the necessary ceremonies are done, it’s time for celebration. “If it’s enjoyable, get out there and do it. Celebrate how you want to celebrate. Make it your Matariki where you are.”

2023 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year, Dr Rangi Mātāmua (Image: Kiwibank)

For my whānau, this Māori New Year has spurred reflective reconnection – catching up over kai and together remembering the dead. At the same time, our iwi is running an overnight wānanga about Matariki, kōrero tuku iho (history) and whakapapa. The Spinoff is learning waiata (songs), having a short wānanga and finishing with a group feed. 

What is the best time to do some Te Kahui o Matariki stargazing?

It depends where you live. Generally, though, your best bet is in the lead-up to sunrise, roughly between 4.30-6.30am. If you need clarification, check with the mana whenua in your area.

Te Kahui o Matariki. (Design: Archi Banal)

If I’m not Māori, how can I respectfully participate in local Matariki celebrations? 

Although there is no one tika (correct) answer to the question “how should I spend my Matariki?” – different iwi, hapū and whānau celebrate uniquely – some events consistently happen across the motu. One example is the umu kohukohu whetū. This pre-sunrise ceremony is a way to welcome and pay tribute to the celestial realm through karakia, waiata and offerings of food and steam from the hāngī/umu. In Tāmaki Makaurau, the umu kohukohu whetū of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei is one of the hundreds of events the iwi and Auckland Council are co-hosting as part of their Matariki Festival.

On July 14 at 5.30am, Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei invites manuhiri (guests) to Takaparawhau (Bastion Point) to join their dawn ceremony. Marama Royal, Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei Trust chair, explains how manuhiri should behave at their hau tapu (sacred ceremony): “For us Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, we ask that guests come with aroha, manaaki and an open mind to participate in karakia, karanga and kai. And be respectful to those around you and those performing the ceremony,” says Royal. That same manaaki (hospitable care) is extended to manuhiri, as Royal explains, “we welcome anyone to share the rising of Matariki with us. Bring your gumboots and dress warm.”

Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei trust board chair, Marama Royal. (Image: Te Pukenga)

Their ceremony is primarily devoted to four whetu from Te Kahui o Matariki: Tupuānuku (patron of ground food), Tupuārangi (patron of sky food), Waitā (patron of the oceans and seas) and Waitī (patron of freshwater). When the steam from the umu is released, a connection to the spiritual realm opens, explains Etienne Neho, who prepared the hāngī. Karakia will then be recited to remember those who have recently passed. 

Because the umu kohukohu whetū connects the physical and spiritual realms, it’s followed by the process of whakanoa (extinguishing dangerous energy) through eating kai. “It’s important for people to know that having kai afterwards is crucial to get rid of anything leftover from the hau tapu. It is more than just having a feed. It’s about rebalancing your wairua after speaking to the dead,” explains Neho. To enact whakanoa, Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei invites their guests to share breakfast with them. “We want to make sure that those who come have a full puku when they leave,” says Royal. 

Sounds awesome. What about learning?

Wānanga about plenty of kaupapa (topics) are happening across the motu during the Māori New Year. My iwi, Ngaati Te Ata Waiohua, is running a Matariki wānanga for our people, although many others are open to manuhiri. Pāora Puru, a kaitiaki from my iwi, says the opportunity to learn through discussion “grows the capability of our people to understand who we are, where we come from and what our values are”.

Pāora Puru, one of the kaitiaki of Ngaati Te Ata Waiohua. (Photo: Supplied)

Mātauranga (knowledge) in itself is a beautiful taonga. But teaching people at wānanga how to practically apply mātauranga increases its potential to cause powerful and transformational change. Puru hopes this wānanga will empower our whanaunga (relatives) to improve the future of our mokopuna. “The wānanga is about lasting change. We can tap into ancestral wisdom, which is what heals intergenerational trauma,” he says.  

Puru explains that although Matariki is a beautiful kaupapa he supports, “in Taamaki as Ngaati Te Ata, the new year is about revitalising our own knowledge. Because we are on the west coast, we acknowledge but don’t celebrate Matariki because we can’t see it.” Instead, our iwi devotes this vital period to Puanga and Rehua. Puru believes that wānanga this time of year are opportunities to promote localised versions of the Māori New Year. “There has been a one-size-fits-all approach, so for us Ngaati Te Ata, it is about revitalising our area-specific mātauranga,” he says. However, other wānanga run by different rōpū during New Year’s celebrations will cover many diverse kaupapa, from weaving to stargazing. 

Any other fun stuff?

Special ceremonies (like umu kohukohu whetū) and opportunities to learn (such as wānanga) are being run across the motu, so look out for events in your area (a list of events can be found below). Plenty of other kinds of events are also being held. For example, Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei is holding kite flying and planting days. On the other hand, my iwi is running a night lights festival in Waiuku – the town closest to our marae – and even held a Matariki showcase for local schools. 

Matariki kite flying at Takaparawhau. (Photo: Getty Images/Hannah Peters)

Royal says, “it is wonderful that Aotearoa-New Zealand can celebrate a beautiful time like Matariki as a public holiday that embraces mātauranga Māori”. For her, the New Year is a time for re-energising, reflection, remembrance and resetting – and spending quality time with her mokopuna (grandchildren). For Puru, the Māori New Year is an opportunity to create a safe space for our iwi to rediscover and relearn our unique mātauranga about this time of year, as passed down by our kaumātua. “Mātauranga enhances us like nothing else can,” he notes. Yet it is fitting to return to the words of Dr Rangi Mātāmua – without whom this public holiday likely wouldn’t exist. “Celebrate how you want to celebrate. Make it your Matariki”.

Māori New Year events

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