Fears cultural significance of Matariki may be lost on some

7:41 pm on 1 June 2022

The first Matariki public holiday is less than a month away, and while excitement is building for many, some have raised fears about how it will be marked.

People glimpse the first sunrise of the Matariki season on Mauao in Mt Maunganui on Tuesday. Photo:

Matariki holds significant cultural and spiritual weight for many Māori and some fear the occasion could become commercialised or reduced to a homogenous celebration.

Astronomer and maramataka expert Rangi Matamua, who spent decades campaigning for Matariki, is brimming with excitement for the holiday. So much so he is keeping count: Three weeks and two days.

Matamua is the chair of the government's Matariki advisory committee and is also an adviser for Crown agency Te Arawhiti as it prepares for Matariki.

But his advisory board, while excited, had some concerns. One of them was the potential commercialisation of Matariki.

"I don't know how you stop that," he said.

"Because you know it takes something like the birth of Jesus Christ and turns it into flying reindeer and Santa. It takes something like the death of Jesus Christ and turns it into a 12-foot rabbit that lays chocolate eggs."

He joked that he would "hate to see the Matariki possum".

Rangi Matamua, Maori Astronomer and Professor at the University of Waikato.

Astronomer and maramataka expert Rangi Matamua looks up to the night sky. Photo: Supplied Spark NZ

Retail NZ chief executive Greg Harford said his organisation was conscious of those concerns. There were no trading restrictions on Matariki and people were free to shop.

"However, Retail NZ has advised its members that they should avoid commercialising Matariki," Harford said in a written statement.

The advisory panel and some other Māori leaders had also raised concerns about just how Matariki would be celebrated, with community events both large and small planned across the country.

But Matariki, traditionally, is a period of solemn reflection, followed by a celebration of the present and a looking ahead to the future.

It is an appreciation for the earth, the ocean and the environment, and for looking to the stars.

Would a public fireworks display be appropriate?

"We get asked that a lot," Matamua said.

"When we were asked about fireworks, we thought, well why would you try and replace the magnificence of the night sky with artificial lights? I think the whole idea is to look into the stars."

Some councils, like Auckland and Christchurch, have abandoned Matariki fireworks off the back of such advice. But others, including Nelson and Wellington, are pushing ahead.

Wellington City Council chief Māori officer Karepa Wall said there was more nuance to the capital's decision.

The mana whenua of Te Whanganui-a-Tara is Taranaki Whānui, for whom, like many West Coast and southern Māori, Matariki is not the new year. It is Puanga, which rises a couple of weeks before.

"You know Taranaki came down here into Wellington and there's also a big huge range there, the Remutaka Range. So you can't really see the horizon and where Matariki's coming up," Wall said.

"But higher in the sky is Puanga, and so an ability for them to celebrate their natural new year."

In fact, Wall said the capital's fireworks were moved to the Matariki date (24 June) on the advice of mana whenua.

The city used to have a display for Guy Fawke's on 5 November, the day Taranaki Whānui commemorated the invasion of Parihaka.

Wall said a traditional ceremony would be held on Puanga, with the fireworks display on the later public holiday. But the council was open to change, he said.

"The wonderful thing in New Zealand is that our culture continues to evolve, our culture continues to modernise and so if there is a point in the future that our mana whenua decide that actually we need to revisit that kind of decision and possibly look at other things, we'll be open to having those kinds of conversations."

In Mt Maunganui on Tuesday, celestial navigator and tohunga Jack Thatcher was one of about 150 people to ascend Mauao before dawn, catching a glimpse of the first sunrise of the Matariki season.


From the peak of Mauao the view swept across Te Moana-a-Toi. The breeze carried karakia out into the Pacific, as the first rays of dawn bled across the darkness above the distant Raukumara range.

Matariki was significant to Thatcher, but he was ambivalent about the other concerns.

"Ah well, it's like anything, commercialisation is going to happen," he said.

"You know people said, 'are we going to make Matariki a sacred day?' I said no, Matariki is about celebration. If people want to have wine and celebrate in the ways that people want to celebrate that's up to them.

"I have no problem with that."

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Jack Thatcher is helping to organise Matariki events in Tauranga. Photo: Te Kawa Robb

Thatcher and his Te Puna i Rangiriri Trust were working on a significant number of events in Tauranga, with interest from across the community like never before.

Another ceremony on Mauao was planned for 24 June, though Thatcher said if interest so far was anything to go by, there might be too many people to fit on the summit.

Matamua said despite the concerns, Matariki overwhelmingly was about coming together, reflecting on the past, celebrating the present, and looking to the future.

Matariki hunga nui - Matariki of many people.


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