© New Zealand Broadcasting School 2024

The meaning of Matariki

Georgie Hanafin
Matariki star cluster by Filip Lolić
It has been suggested that the idea of Matariki as a group of seven female stars was influenced by the concept of the Pleiades' "seven sisters".  Filip Lolić

With Matariki the newest public holiday in the calendar, how many people know the story behind this cultural celebration?

In the chilly, mid-winter dawn towards the start of July. A cluster of stars rises, bringing with it an occasion to mourn the deceased, celebrate the present, and prepare the ground for the coming year.

Māori believed the appearance of Matariki (or The Seven Sisters) in the morning marked Te Mātahi o te Tau, the beginning of the Māori New Year.

Tohunga kokorangi would watch for the rise of The Sisters just before dawn, and carefully study the appearance of each star to predict the weather and prospects of a good harvest in the new year.

Traditionally, Matariki celebrations had three parts. Viewing the stars, remembering the deceased, and making an offering of food to the stars.

Whānau would gather with left-over crops and supplies, cook a feast to share, and plan for the year ahead.
But has the meaning of Matariki been lost?

When conversation started around making Matariki a national public holiday, online commentary quickly uncovered missing knowledge that spanned generations.

A Facebook poll asked 120 Canterbury parents if they felt confident in telling the story of Matariki to someone who'd never heard of the celebration.

Only 16 felt they could. The remaining 113 said no.

MP for Christchurch Central Dr Duncan Webb says because Matariki has been out of the public mind and eye for so long, he’s not surprised at how generations have missed learning about it.

“It was one of those treasures that was hidden away. While some Māori communities would celebrate it, it wasn’t a widely recognised holiday so it’s not surprising that we don’t know much about it in the wider community.”

Dr Webb says the new conversations happening around Matariki are a renaissance. 

"That's what it is when someone who's in a community and wants to share this bit of their culture, and not only share, but preserve and expand. It's about identifying there is a thing called Matariki and it's a traditional Māori celebration, but it's for everyone."

Lynne Te Aika of Te Ngāi Tūāhuriri Rūnanga says education around Matariki is no different to any other new public holiday. 

Of the Facebook poll results, she says there are other days many people might not know the stories behind. 

"We have a number of public holidays including Christmas and Boxing Day, and if you ask people the origins of Boxing Day, they probably wouldn't be able to tell you."

She says education will come over time, and many from the older generations will learn from their kids as they teach it in schools.  

Te Aika is pleased to see a resurgence in the recognition of Matariki, and helped local artists work this year's Tirama Mai light festival into a Matariki 'feast for your eyes'.

Matariki and other cultural variations of the story surrounding the constellations have existed around the world for millennia, and while the overall theme remains similar, Te Aika says even within local Māori communities, different iwi and whānau will celebrate differently. 

For Dr Duncan Webb and Lynne Te Aika, this looks like spending time with family, remembering those who have passed, and focusing on the year ahead.