Matariki Festival is more popular than ever

New Zealand is in celebration mode with the arrival of Matariki - signifying the beginning of Māori New Year.

Aotearoa New Zealand is in celebration mode with the arrival of Matariki, a significant time in the New Zealand cultural calendar marking the beginning of Māori New Year.

Each year the Matariki cluster of stars - known to astronomers as Pleiades or the Seven Sisters - rises in New Zealand skies. Believed to have formed more than 100 million years ago the cluster plays a pivotal role in modern and ancient Māori mythology.

Matariki continues to grow and this year is the biggest festival yet with many events all over New Zealand.

This year, Eat New Zealand - a food community dedicated “to connecting people with our land through our food” - is the force behind New Zealand’s first national food celebration, Feast Matariki. Running throughout June and July, Feast Matariki consists of a number of events and regional activations celebrating our national food culture in a way that is uniquely New Zealand.

In 2019, Auckland has a new citywide festival 'Elemental AKL' inspired by Matariki and the natural elements - air, fire, earth, sea - and Wellington has a new family fireworks celebration. On the east coast, at Waimarama Beach in Hawke's Bay, elders will gather on 29 June to inaugurate a new installation called the Matai Whetu - a representation of an ancient traditional celestial observatory and school.  

Dawn rising 

Matariki takes place in mid-winter from late May or early June - the dates vary according to tribes and geography - as the stars reappear to the human eye just before dawn throughout winter and early spring.

For Māori, the arrival of Matariki signals an ending and a beginning. It gives people the chance to connect with their whanau (family) to reminisce and reflect on the year that has passed and rejoice and rejuvenate for the new year that lies ahead.

Like many cultures, food plays an integral role in rituals and life of Māori. Traditionally, Māori believed the earth was the giver of life. From the earth came food and so Matariki was a time of ceremonial offering to Māori land gods Rongo and Uenuku in the hope of a bountiful harvest in the year to come.

With Matariki arriving in winter the annual harvest and stockpiling for the harsh months ahead became a priority. Once the harvesting was complete it was time to celebrate with kai (food) often cooked in a hangi in the ground and shared with whanau and friends.

Modern Matariki

Matariki celebrations were popular for Māori before the arrival of the Europeans. The festivals continued into the 1900’s but eventually they died out in the 1940s. However, the beginning of the 21st Century marked the revival of Matariki and the event continues to rise in popularity.

The first modern day Matariki celebrations took place in Hawke's Bay in 2000. Around 500 people took part in that first festival but by 2003 numbers had risen to 15,000. Matariki has continued to play an important role in the life of modern day Māori and New Zealanders. This astronomical event inspires a selection of festivals that take place around the country.

Unforgettable experiences

To celebrate Matariki in Auckland many significant public buildings and landmarks, including the Auckland Museum and Sky Tower will be lit in Matariki colours. To mark the beginning of the festival, a Matariki dawn karakia (prayer) service will be held at Pukearoa Hill in the Auckland Domain with the participation of local kaumātua (Māori elders) who will recite ancient karakia, and lead traditional chants and contemporary waiata (song). More than 100 events will be running across the Auckland region during the Matariki Festival celebrating Māori culture, art, entertainment, and food. Shoppers in downtown Britomart will be able to sample traditional food cooked in an earth hangi.  

In the Hamilton Waikato region, restaurants and cafes come together in the Matariki Dish Challenge - a quest to find the best dishes celebrating Matariki through Maori kai (food). It's the fifth year of the challenge and in 2019 exotic entries include everything from 'Lemongrass beef in grilled kawakawa leaves' to 'Coromandel oysters, smoked kawahai, pickled red sea chicory, urenika potato, horopito fry bread with pikopiko salt', 'Blackfoot paua ravioli, blackened cauliflower, double-smoked bacon broth, puha, onion weed, chilli', and 'Haloumi and honey baklava, warm date caramel, feijoa, kawakawa and pistachio ice'.

In Wellington, New Zealand’s creative capital city, Matariki is being marked with a spectacular fireworks display, traditional water sports, food, cultural and artistic events. These events embody the spirit of Matariki, merging the past with the present through art. Te Papa Tongarewa - the national museum - and museums throughout the greater Wellington area will be leading the way with a stellar programme of family-friendly events, including music and performances for tamariki (children). Some of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most experienced and revered Māori entertainers will also be on stage for the annual Kapa Haka event held at Te Papa Museum.

Dunedin, in the southern South Island, celebrates with the Puaka Matariki festival featuring a programme of communtiy and arts events, workshops and Matariki-themed events at the Otago Museum and Planetarium. Dunedin’s festival focuses on the Puaka star which is a part of the Orion constellation and the principle star of the Ngai Tahu tribe, the Māori iwi of the southern region of New Zealand.

Different tribes celebrate Matariki at different times. For some it was when Matariki rose in May or June. For others it was celebrated at the first new moon, or full moon, following the rising of Matariki. In the 21st century, it is the new moon following the rising of Matariki that signals the New Year.

Starry, starry night

Matariki’s focus on the night sky is fitting as New Zealand boasts some of the best stargazing opportunities in the world

Aoraki Mackenzie is a gold-rated dark sky reserve, in recognition of the quality of the almost light-pollution-free skies of the Mackenzie Basin. The 4300sq km area is bounded by a spectacular alpine landscape with the Southern Alps in the west, and the Two Thumb Range in the east. 

The dark sky reserve is located in the Mackenzie Basin, in the South Island of New Zealand, and includes Aoraki Mt Cook National Park and the villages of Lake Tekapo, Twizel and Mt Cook. The Mt John Observatory is New Zealand’s premier scientific astronomy observatory and is based in Tekapo. The observatory site was chosen in 1963 for the clarity and darkness of the night sky after three years of site testing.

Mt John is operated by the University of Canterbury and the on-site team includes astronomers from Japan’s Nagoya University. The USA and Germany have also invested in Mt John facilities. 

Aotearoa New Zealand also has two dark sky sanctuaries in the skies above the islands of Great Barrier (north of Auckland) and Stewart (south of Invercargill).