Reflecting on Matariki

11 Aug Reflecting on Matariki

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly, cover date 7.8.23


Sometimes you don’t know you are missing something until it turns up in your life. This is how I feel about Matariki, our new public holiday to observe the Māori New Year.

I’ve always figured we needed an official winter break – that was a long wait from Queen’s Birthday in June to Labour Weekend late October, right? But I hadn’t realised how significant it would feel to celebrate something uniquely our own, which comes with local history and ritual.

Sure, the Gregorian New Year comes with “ritual” in the sense that “party hard, midnight snog, start the year a bit dusty” has been an accepted blueprint.

But spending this Matariki consciously reflecting on the past and planning for the future felt like a perfect thing to do in the heart of winter – and probably exactly what people in the Northern Hemisphere feel about their snow-covered celebrations when even the weather wants you to rest, take stock, be still for a moment.

Out in Piha where I spent my long weekend we were down at the beach hours before dawn on Saturday to look for the Matariki stars. Local kaumātua Pita Turei has been observing Matariki here for years and usually a handful of other people join him. This year around fifty of us gather from 5am till almost 7.30am, hearing Pita tell stories (not “myths” he says, “our narratives”) that belong to this piece of land and its sky.

Someone has helpfully brought a laser pointer so that, when Pita talks about the constellations, we know where to look – though it is also a tiny bit hilarious that an ancient ritual briefly feels a bit PowerPoint-presentation, and there’s a gentle ripple of laughter.

We gather in a circle around two small fires – one where we burn pieces of wood held in our hands while we’ve thought about the past year (regrets, people we’ve lost) and another fuelled by sticks representing our plans for the year ahead. Some of us are mana whenua, most of us are Pakeha, all of us begin to feel connected. One of the people I’m staying with whispers in my ear, “This is how we bring people together,” and he’s right.

It is a powerful thing to hear the stories of a place while you are literally standing in that place. When I was a growing up, history was in books and about other countries. I know I’m not the only one who is hungry to learn more of the stories about the place I live, and how much more you feel you belong when you know these stories.

It was a jarring moment, then, after sunrise and coffee to read the newspaper and see one of those other stories we’ve been seeing lately – some high profile, wealthy New Zealander saying our country is not what it was, has lost its mojo, that as a nation our best years are behind us. That they’d like it to go back to the way it was (make it great again!) or else they’re letting us know they’re leaving for somewhere better.

This is a story told by someone who was doing pretty great before, and would have liked things to stay the same. Makes sense for them. And I won’t pretend times aren’t tough. But then you look at who gathers before dawn, and you can think maybe we are just starting now to move in the right direction, and our better years are to come.