Matariki rising – New Zealand’s mid-winter festival

Matariki - the Māori New Year - is enjoyed by all New Zealanders and visitors are welcome to join the celebrations.

Once a purely Māori experience, Matariki - the Māori New Year - is now enjoyed by all New Zealanders and visitors are welcome to join the celebrations.

The rising of the star cluster Matariki has always been an important time for Māori, who relied on it to plan the year ahead. These days, it’s a nationwide celebration, with festivals and events held in towns and cities throughout the country.

For New Zealand's Māori population, the rising of Matariki historically marked a time for remembrance, a time for celebration and a time for planning the year ahead. Matariki - also known as the Pleiades star cluster, the Seven Sisters, or by other names in Africa, Asia, South America and the Pacific - rises above New Zealand's northern horizon in the cold winter month of June and its arrival is one of the key astronomical events on the Māori calendar.

In recent years Matariki has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, culminating in festivals, events and celebrations. In 2016, you'll be able to experience Matariki in towns and cities throughout New Zealand from its expected appearance on Thursday, 6 June to late July.

Dr Rangi Matamua, one of New Zealand's foremost Māori astronomers, from the Tuhoe tribe, says stories abound about the significance of Matariki. "Matariki is connected to many things. It's connected to life and death, planting and harvesting, food, planning and preparing for the year ahead, and it's a time of celebration.

"When Māori saw Matariki rising, the tohunga [an astronomy expert] would take a reading for the year ahead. If Matariki appeared bright and clear, it would mean there would be lots of fish, a good growing season and plentiful birds. If it appeared hazy or seemed to be moving about, it indicated a lean year ahead."

As an environmental indicator, Matariki remained vitally important: "Things such as its clarity, colour, brightness, the distance between stars, they all meant something,” says Dr Matamua. “This knowledge was vital for your survival. Without this ability to read the stars, and to know what the year ahead held, quite simply, you died. That's why it is woven into our culture, our language, our mythology and our traditions."

During Matariki, Māori would also mourn those who had passed away in the preceding 12 months, he adds. "Their spirits are released into the sky as stars at the time of Matariki, so they are not just stars in the sky, they are our ancestors."

Celebrations usually continued until the new moon following Matariki’s appearance; today, they generally take place from early June to mid-July and feature cultural performances, plays, talks, workshops, tours and meals.

If you want to see Matariki, you'll need to set the alarm clock. Get up early and look to the north, says Margaret Munro, general manager of Earth & Sky in the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve at Lake Tekapo in the South Island. "It's usually about 5 or 6am and it will be low on the horizon, so you want to be able to see the northern horizon uninterrupted if you can," she says.

"Somewhere with clear sky and a good view of the horizon is ideal."

Munro suggests looking to the left of what New Zealanders refer to as ‘The Pot’ but which others know as Orion's Belt, albeit appearing upside down in southern skies. 

Dr Matamua says it’s worth forgoing a few hours in bed to see Matariki, and after watching it for 20 years, he says the star cluster looks different every time. "At different times, different things stand out; it can be hard to see or it can be really bright." 

He says many of the traditional elements of Matariki are missing from today's celebrations and it has gone beyond Māori culture to become part of New Zealand's national identity. But there are groups of people looking to revive those traditional aspects.

"I can remember as a kid my grandfather taking me to see it. I didn't take much notice of it at the time but I remember it was early and it was cold. It was only later I realised the importance of it. Maybe this knowledge is even more important now."

What Matariki means to me

Tina Masters of Pure Cruise New Zealand hosts guests aboard the luxury 53-foot catamaran Tiua on the pristine waters of Lake Rotoiti, near Rotorua in the central North Island and less than three hours’ drive from Auckland.

A local of Tainui and Te Arawa descent, Masters says Matariki is cause for celebration, even if it is cold on the water at that time of year. "Matariki to us is about celebrating the unique place we live in Aotearoa [the Māori name for New Zealand] and celebrating our seafaring heritage. Our ancestors successfully navigated with the stars to find their way throughout the Pacific and eventually to land here in Aotearoa. It is fitting we acknowledge Matariki for the navigational significance it has for our people. It is a time for us to share the stories, the legends and the knowledge that the stars hold for us."

Pure Cruise hosts overnight charters during the period of the new moon for Matariki, with the opportunity of a dawn sighting of the Matariki cluster.

Prominent chef Charles Royal – who is affiliated with the Te Whanau-a-Apanui, Ngati Raukawa ki te Tonga and Ngati Maru tribes – is an expert in traditional Māori kai [food]. He says Matariki is one of the best times of the year to gather kai in the forests. "You've really got to get out of the city to see it at its best, away from the light," he says. "To me, Matariki means simply the growing of our kai in the ngahere [forest]. Pikopiko [young fern shoots] are everywhere during Matariki, especially high up in the mountain areas, and there are loads of edible fungus around as well.

"Matariki is also a time to prepare your gardens. It's when you put all the compost into the garden and get it ready for the coming season. It's all about living off the land – even if you've only got a small piece of whenua [land], you can still grow food. Winter and summer you can still produce food. That's what it's all about - Papatuanuku [mother earth] producing at her very best."

This year, Royal will tour the South Island, giving talks and hosting cooking demonstrations throughout Matariki. "I'm happy to put on a hangi [earth oven] meal for visitors or take them into the forest and show them our traditional foods, whatever they want.”

Taonga puoro (traditional Māori musical instrument) expert Riki Bennett is an integral part of Matariki celebrations in Auckland. Bennett (of Ngati Pikiao, Te Arawa and Ngati Porou descent), organises and hosts workshops and other events throughout the city. He often performs at the launch of Matariki celebrations, filling the early-morning air with the haunting sounds produced from his ancient instruments. 

For him, the meaning of Matariki has never changed. "It’s about sharing matauranga [knowledge] around wayfinding using the stars, the history of our people, the food our ancestors ate, the skills they used. Matariki is definitely an important time to celebrate. It has become part of our cultural identity and that's a good thing. Everyone is getting involved. For me, as a musician, it’s a busy time but a very enjoyable time too."

This year, Matariki is especially significant for Bianca Ranson of Potiki Adventures on Waiheke Island, just 40 minutes by ferry from downtown Auckland. “This year is special because we are unveiling the whakairo [carvings] on our whare tupuna [ancestral house] on June 6,” says Ranson, who is of Ngapuhi, Ngati Kahu ki Whaingaroa descent. “We've been waiting for the carvings for 15 years. There'll be a dawn ceremony and we’ll unveil them. We’ll explain why they are being unveiled during Matariki and the significance of that. 

“Matariki is about the sharing of knowledge and it always draws us together. We usually have a whanau [family] get-together and there are always Matariki events on the island, like fashion shows and art exhibitions – it’s an exciting time.”

How to Experience Matariki

Matariki is celebrated throughout New Zealand, with most major towns and cities hosting Matariki Festivals or events during June and July.

Auckland's Matariki Festival runs from 18 June to 17 July and includes cultural performances, workshops, talks and demonstrations. 

Auckland’s Stardome Observatory & Planetarium is hosting the show Matariki Dawn from Wednesday to Sunday throughout June at 7pm. The show features Māori myths and stories, and visitors can see Matariki close-up in the planetarium. Other events will be announced closer to the time.

The city of Hamilton - less than two hours’ drive from Auckland - hosts Matariki celebrations annually; it also has public sculptures celebrating Matariki. Full details will be available online.

The Rotorua Lakes Council always has a wide range of Matariki events.

Wellington hosts annual Matariki celebrations, and the city’s Space Place at Carter Observatory is also planning several events. Te Papa - Museum of New Zealand has a month of events culminating with a weekend of kapa haka (Maori performance arts) - an iconic national event featuring teams of kaumata (elders).

Christchurch’s Matariki events are publicised on the city council website.

The southern city of Dunedin hosts its unique Puaka Matariki Dunedin Festival, with a diverse range of community celebrations across the city.

Because Matariki rises in the very early morning, most observatories will be closed, but you should be able to view Matariki by finding a place with clear skies and an uninterrupted view of the northern horizon.