Starting this Friday, New Zealanders across the motu will enjoy a long weekend, the nation’s first ever Matariki holiday. I met with astrophysicist, Māori astronomy expert, and member of the Matariki Advisory Committee Dr Pauline Harris to find out more.

Friday the 24th of June will be our first national holiday to celebrate Matariki, a kāhui or cluster of nine stars whose rising in mid-winter marks the Māori new year for many iwi. Dr Harris has long been studying and revitalising Māori astronomy, so when she first heard that Matariki was going to be celebrated with a public holiday, she was excited – “that’s a great idea,” she told me, reflecting on her initial reaction, “let’s have it!”

Read a 2020 article by Dr Hēmi Whaanga, Dr Pauline Harris and Prof Rangi Matamua, The science and practice of Māori astronomy and Matariki

Then came the mahi of determining the holiday’s dates for the next 30 years. The Matariki Advisory Committee engaged in kōrero and research exploring the diverse mātauranga and traditions of iwi across the motu, and used computational techniques combined with experiential knowledge to calculate the dates – a robust process sitting behind the deceptively simple list of 30 dates.

Read the government’s announcement of the Matariki holiday dates

Dr Pauline Harris.

One of the chief complexities associated with determining the dates was that the rising of Matariki isn’t the signifier of the new year for all iwi. The movements of other stars, such as Puanga (Rigel), Atutahi (Canopus), and Rehua (Antares), are used by some, and even among those that recognise Matariki as the marker of the new year, tribal and regional differences exist based on unique knowledge and environmental factors.

One of the most widely recognised times to celebrate the Māori new year is in the lunar month of Pipiri, when the Matariki cluster has risen, and the moon is in its Tangaroa phase. Over the days of the Tangaroa moon phase, as the moon wanes from a quarter to a new moon, Matariki is viewed before dawn in the Northeast and the new year is celebrated.

“It’s not a very bright constellation,” Dr Harris tells me. “I liken it to the glistening of the water… it shimmers.” Best to get out of the city to view it clearly.

The Tangaroa of Pipiri method for determining the timing for the Matariki holiday was affirmed by the Matariki Advisory Committee. “We all came to agreement,” Dr Harris said, “with all the main leading experts in Māori astronomy in the room, from all over the country.”

Locking in the dates for the next 30 years is something you want to get right, so the committee used all the tools available. Both mātauranga Māori and computational techniques were used to check and double-check the Friday-ised dates and reconcile timings according to the lunar calendar of te ao Māori with the 365 day solar calendar that predominates today. Using a Māori calendar – known as a maramataka – the phases of the moon and movements of the stars mark the passage of time, while according to a solar calendar, a year is denoted by the amount of time it takes the earth to journey once around the sun. With the inherent differences in these calendars, working out when Matariki falls was no simple task.

Bringing different the techniques and knowledge systems needed to complete the task was “super exciting,” Dr Harris says, an interface rich with opportunities and potential. But it’s also a place to walk respectfully, with Māori leading the way and with mātauranga respected and invested in as “a growing, living knowledge.”

Read the Matariki Advisory Committee’s methodology for calculating the Matariki holiday dates

Another aspect of the committee’s work was to provide guidance around how to mark the celebration. There are three key principles that Matariki celebrations are based around. It’s a time for “remembering those who have passed, celebrating the present, and planning for the future,” Dr Harris tells me. It’s also a time for expressing aroha, giving back to the environment, uniting, feasting, and coming together.

Read the Matariki Advisory Committee’s summary of the values for Matariki celebrations

The last few years have seen a flourishing of Matariki celebrations throughout the country, and this year will certainly see more growth, with ceremonies and events planned throughout Aotearoa. Aspects of traditional ceremonies include preparing foods that represent the realms of the different stars in the kāhui, reciting the names of those who have passed since the last rising of Matariki, and reflecting on hopes, dreams, and aspirations for the year ahead.

Learn about the stars of Matariki at Living by the Stars, a resource created by Prof Rangi Matamua

Listen to Rahera Davies’ waiata Matariki e ara e, which names the stars of the kāhui

So enjoy your long weekend! I know I will be, tripping home to be with whānau, climbing my maunga to observe the stars, and embracing Aotearoa’s first mātauranga-based holiday.

Me mātau ki te whetū, i mua i te kōkiri o te haere.

Ngā mihi,