Matariki rises – Aotearoa New Zealand's new national holiday


Matariki – a traditional Māori festival – is the inspiration behind a new national holiday for all New Zealanders.

Matariki stars rise over Kapiti Coast. Credit Mark Russell
When southern hemisphere nights are at their longest, New Zealanders look to the skies for the arrival of a cluster of stars known as Matariki.

The festival celebrates the rising of the Matariki star cluster in the midwinter skies over New Zealand. It signals the start of the Māori New Year and a time to look back with gratitude and forward with hope -- an ancient seasonal custom that has seen renewed interest and growing participation over recent times.

Family, community, culture and feasting are essential elements in this festival which will be celebrated nationally for the first time on Friday, 24 June 2022. Dates will change each year according to the lunar calendar.

The traditional festival takes place over several weeks, as the star cluster rises and appears in southern skies. Stargazing is exceptionally clear during these long winter nights, and many restaurants join in with special Matariki menus featuring indigenous ingredients.

What is Matariki?

Also known as the Māori New Year, Matariki is a traditional festival time celebrating the harvest and preparing family and community for the future. 
Ancestral Māori were accomplished astronomers who used the stars to navigate and live by and, for them, the arrival of the Matariki cluster (known elsewhere as the Pleiades or Seven Sisters) announced the winter solstice and the beginning of the new year.

Traditionally, the festival was a time to connect with whanau (family) and community to celebrate the harvest end, to pause and reflect on the past year, rejoice and rejuvenate for the new year ahead.

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The festival timing varies according to regions and local customs, extending from late May or early June into July, during the midwinter / early spring period when the stars rise, reappearing to the human eye just before dawn.

According to Māori legend, the nine stars in the cluster are different entities, a mother and eight children, each representing a different aspect of life. When Matariki appeared, the annual harvest and stockpiling for the harsh months ahead became a priority.

Like many cultures, food plays an integral role in the rituals and life of Māori. Traditionally, Māori believed the earth was the giver and provider so, once the harvesting was completed, it was time to celebrate with kai (food) usually cooked in a hangi (ground oven) and shared with whanau and friends.

Since the beginning of the 21st century there has been a revival of the Matariki festival. Initially seen as an opportunity to help revive the Māori language, the festival continues to rise in popularity, with communities across the nation adding new events each year. These are typically community events centred on hospitality and food sharing, arts and crafts, and education.

Starry nights

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 this alpine region. The 4300sq km area is bounded by a spectacular landscape dominated by the Southern Alps to the west.

The dark sky reserve includes Aoraki Mt Cook National Park and the alpine villages of Takapō (beside Lake Tekapo), Twizel and Mt Cook. Mt John Observatory, New Zealand's premier scientific astronomy observatory, sits above Takapō/Lake Tekapo. The observatory site was chosen in 1963 for the clarity and darkness of the night sky after three years of site testing. Learn about Māori culture while stargazing at the Dark Sky Project (formerly known as Earth & Sky) at Takapō/Lake Tekapo.

Aotearoa New Zealand also has two dark sky island sanctuaries in the skies above Great Barrier Island (north of Auckland) and Stewart Island (south of Invercargill), and a smaller dark sky park at Wai-iti near Nelson. A further dark sky reserve is proposed for the Wairarapa region north of Wellington.

Trade tip: Watch out for special Matariki dishes on the menu at many New Zealand restaurants during the mid-winter festival period.

Where to experience New Zealand's night skies