A space background with a golden dragon, Rangi Matamua, a Matariki display, and Monty the Monkey overlayed.
What the fuck does Monty the Monkey or vapes have to do with Matariki?

ĀteaJune 28, 2024

Three deep: A review of the Matariki public holiday

A space background with a golden dragon, Rangi Matamua, a Matariki display, and Monty the Monkey overlayed.
What the fuck does Monty the Monkey or vapes have to do with Matariki?

Despite ongoing attempts of commercialisation and initial awkwardness around when the holiday should be, Matariki is quickly becoming an integral part of our nation’s cultural identity.

Here I am in the middle of Sylvia Park, a chasm of consumerism, nervously fumbling with my phone trying to figure out which way I need to go. Bright lights, loud music, foreign smells, and people looking at me strangely. Places like this induce my anxiety. I realise I’m awkwardly standing in a main thoroughfare and frantically scan my surroundings for a retreat.

That’s when I spot a Matariki installation right in front of me. There are several large boxes, each depicting a different star of the constellation. A mother is walking with her young child through the exhibit, reading the name of every star aloud: “Hiwa-i-te-rangi,” she says. I let out a small laugh and shake my head at the paradox of a Matariki display in such a space, but the moment makes me take a breath and relax a little.

The Matariki exhibits at Sylvia Park featuring whai, traditional string games played by Māori during the time of Matariki.
The Matariki exhibit at Sylvia Park featuring whai, traditional string games played by Māori during the time of Matariki. (Image: RUN)

Growing up in Auckland, I remember roaming around Lantern Fest at Albert Park. I remember seeing Aotea Square and Queen St flooded with people for Diwali. What I don’t remember is ever celebrating the Māori new year. Sure, there was Waitangi Day but that always felt like a day of mourning to me, rather than one of celebration.

Suffice to say, when Matariki was officially introduced as a public holiday in 2022, I was pleasantly surprised. I also didn’t really know what Matariki was beyond “the Māori New Year” and that it had something to do with a debated number of stars in the sky. I was also aware there was some fella named Rangi Mātāmua (who would later win the New Zealander of the Year Award) spearheading the whole thing. I don’t remember being taught anything about Matariki at school, or university, despite Māori studies being my major for my arts degree.

Matariki is the first new public holiday since Waitangi Day was legislated in 1974. It’s also the first holiday to officially recognise a Māori cultural practice. Mātāmua has widely been credited with the revitalisation of Matariki as a cultural practice and leading the fight for it to be instilled as a public holiday in Aotearoa. He credits much of his knowledge relating to Matariki to a manuscript given to him by his grandfather, written by an ancestor from Te Arawa, Te Pikikōtuku. That manuscript provided Mātāmua with the knowledge he needed to confidently advocate for the revitalisation of Matariki as a widely practiced tradition, and eventually a public holiday.

Along with the rest of the nation, my understanding of Matariki has evolved over recent years. I’ve learnt there are nine stars in the constellation, which is also known as Pleiades. Each star represents something different, with a majority of them related to food. Pōhutukawa, Hiwa-i-te-rangi, Matariki, Ururangi and Waipuna-ā-rangi are the exceptions. Pōhutukawa is the star that carries those that have passed on into the heavens, to become their own stars.

Like many indigenous cultures around the world, Māori traditionally had a profound understanding of the natural world. For example, there are hundreds of Māori names for the different types of wind or the āhua of the sun filtering through the clouds in the morning. There are several whakatauki that illustrate how Matariki is intrinsically related to the natural world. The migration of lamprey, fatness of kererū, harvest dates, and even outlook for future harvests (if the Matariki stars were dim, the harvest would be poor, but if the Matariki stars were bright, the future would be bright too, with a plentiful harvest) are all natural events Māori associate with the rising of Matariki.

Māori divide the year into seasons, months and lunar phases. We take into account the position of the sun when it rises, various stars that appear in the morning before the sun, and the different lunar phases. These events give us our markers of time.

The Matariki Advisory Group has locked in the Matariki public holiday dates until 2052. The group of recognised maramataka and mātauranga Māori experts decided that the Matariki public holiday dates should fall on the closest Friday to the Tangaroa lunar period during the lunar month of Pipiri. This means the public holiday dates will vary year to year. This year the holiday is today, June 28, but in 2026 it will be on July 10. It’s a compromise between a Gregorian calendar system and Māori lunar phases.

Back in the day, most Māori made offerings of food to each star of Matariki, with hopes of an abundant year of kai ahead. Some would stand in mud and cut their hair while crying out the names of their loved ones as a ritual of grieving and renewal. Every hapū and even different whānau would acknowledge the occasion in their own way. Where I come from in Te Hiku, we give prominence to the rising of Puanga, or Rigel, as Matariki can be more difficult to see from our kainga. This is the case for many Māori situated along the west coast of New Zealand.

Given the rich cultural history and traditions related to Matariki, I have long feared that making it a public holiday would lead to its bastardisation and commercialisation. Capitalism always seems to inevitably find a way to turn any significant occasion into a time to go and spend up large. Sadly, the inevitable seems to have already happened. Like most public holidays, a large proportion of New Zealanders spend Matariki weekend getting pissed, sleeping in, or catching up on long overdue chores. Businesses around the country are advertising Matariki sales, Westfield has Monty the Monkey making an appearance, and there are numerous companies sending out newsletters with something Matariki related, making abysmal attempts to link their offerings to the occasion.

A screenshot of The Vape Shop website's Matariki sale page.
A Matariki vape sale, of course!

Despite this, there are also people attempting to engage in cultural practices and deepen their understanding of traditions that have long been lost. It’s all part of a wider revitalisation of tikanga and mātauranga Māori being witnessed across the country. There are so many Matariki events happening that it’s hard to keep up. The increase in awareness of what Matariki is and how we can honour the occasion will continue to grow as time goes on. Regardless, some people are already unknowingly participating in Matariki traditions simply by spending time with family, eating well, and reflecting on time gone by.

It’s not just New Zealanders who have taken notice of the revival either. A New Zealand delegation recently returned from Raiatea, where they assisted the local population with the revitalisation of Matari’i. This not only included tips on cultural practices but also advice on how to lobby the government to support the kaupapa with funding and making it a public holiday. There have been groups who have travelled to Australia, Hong Kong and other countries around the world to assist with events honouring the occasion.

Today, I’m hoping to attend my first ever whāngai i te hautapu ceremony at Takaparahwau with my family. Last year, I tried to convince my predominantly Sāmoan and Cook Islander household to partake in a hautapu ceremony with me. Unfortunately, they all slept in instead. I guess waking up at 5am on a cold winter morning to peer into the early morning sky doesn’t quite have the same appeal as eating dumplings half-cut while listening to Chinese reggae, or scoffing a plate of biryani while watching fireworks.

Although the public may have been quick to adopt Matariki as another chance to take a day off work, exactly how we honour the occasion is an evolving dynamic. There are numerous light shows, fireworks displays, hāngī feasts, hautapu ceremonies, wānanga, and more for the public to participate in. An expression relating to Matariki that has gained popularity recently is “Matariki whakapau kaha”, which refers to Matariki being a time where energy is depleted. In old times, this would have likely referred to the coldness of the season, but is now ironically used to show that a time traditionally reserved for conserving energy and being with family is actually having the opposite effect on a lot of people.

Te whānau a Matariki (Image: Te Haunui Tuna, 2016, supplied by Rangi Mātāmua)

Despite recent funding cuts from central government, there will continue to be widespread support for Matariki events around the country. Although we’re only three official Matariki holidays deep, the nation’s understanding and awareness of what Matariki is about is far greater than what it was three years ago. As younger generations grow up with Matariki being such a normal part of their lives, it will inevitably be further ingrained as a part of the nation’s fabric. There will always be the continual commercial creep of consumerism but this will be met equally with ongoing awareness building and a deepening national understanding and acknowledgement of what Matariki is and why it is an important time for not only Māori, but Aotearoa as a whole.

This is Public Interest Journalism funded by NZ On Air.

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