Celebrating Matariki–making new traditions

This year is the first year Matariki is an official holiday here in Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s about time. 

Matariki is the Māori New Year celebration. The holiday is named after the Matariki star cluster (also known as the Pleiades), which disappears from our night sky for a time, and reappears in late June, around the winter solstice. 

Matariki is a time to celebrate autumn’s harvest, remember friends and family who have died the previous year, and plan for the new year.

This year, my husband and I will celebrate the harvest with pizza topped with vegetables from the garden, and pie filled with fruit from our berry bushes.

I will remember my grandmother, who passed away in May, just a few days shy of her 97th birthday. Rugs braided by her hands will warm my feet during the chilly days of Matariki.

I will plan for the new year by assessing my seed stock and drawing the 2022-2023 garden map. Although I won’t plan my planting around how the stars of Matariki look when they first appear in the sky, as Māori used to (just as I never planned by Punxsutawney Phil and his Groundhog Day predictions), but I am pleased to note the sky has been crystal clear for the past few days—clear, bright Matariki stars signify an early planting season. Just as a shadowless groundhog used to make me hope for an early spring, bright Matariki stars do the same.

Celebrating Matariki feels natural and right here in Aotearoa. When the children were young, we always celebrated the winter solstice. I made special solstice cakes, decorated to celebrate darkness or welcome the soon-to-be-lengthening days. We’d give the kids little gifts—a flashlight, or some winter-appropriate craft supplies. We made candle holders and dipped beeswax candles. We had a special dinner in the light of the candles we’d made. It wasn’t a huge celebration—just something to mark the season and look forward to during the short, dark winter days.

As the kids grew older, they weren’t interested in candle making or other crafts. We still enjoyed candlelight dinners on the solstice, but most of the other parts of our celebration fell away. Now that Matariki is an official holiday, I expect some of our solstice celebration will make its way into our Matariki celebrations.

Like us, many New Zealanders will be creating new traditions this year, mapping out what Matariki looks like today, mixing traditional Māori celebrations with the myriad cultures that make up modern day New Zealand. I hope as we all move forward with our celebrations, we can resist the commercialisation that has plagued other holidays and remain focused on the deeper meanings behind Matariki and its intimate connection to the land.

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