MANY NEW ZEALANDERS will welcome another public holiday without thinking too much about what celebrating Matariki portends. Just as the presence of a substantial population of Europeans in the South Pacific is something we simply take for granted, so, too, is the unseasonal celebration of European festivals. That the mid-winter festival of Christmas is observed in New Zealand’s mid-summer, bothers Pakeha New Zealanders only inasmuch as the preparation of traditional mid-winter dishes often entails working in uncomfortably hot kitchens. What were once, quite literally, “holy days” have become “holidays” – the more the merrier.
Long lost is the fear and trepidation of finding oneself in the deepest dark of the year. A time of short days and cold, followed by seemingly endless nights. Shivering together, waiting for the first sliver of dawn. All the time aware that nothing is growing in the frozen earth. Prey to the gnawing doubt that, this time, winter will not pass.
These were our ancestors. Strong and resourceful, but also childlike in their dependence on the myths and legends of their forebears: the garnered wisdom of countless generations. Hoarding in words and songs the mysterious regularity of the heavens. The position of the sun; the phases of the moon; the eagerly anticipated rising of familiar stars. Each offering much-needed reassurance that, once again, the darkness will retreat; the warmth will return; the days will lengthen; and the awakening earth will, as it always has, bring forth life in abundance.
And then came the grafting-on of new insights, new wonders, to the ancient stories. From the raw survival of family, tribe, and village, the story shifted to the survival – or damnation – of the individual’s immortal soul. Reality was weighted down with metaphor. Though we find ourselves enveloped in the icy darkness of sin, our faith in the coming of the light, of redemption, is strong. In that mid-winter Bethlehem stable, the promise of eternal life took human form. No accident, either, that the death and resurrection of this God-Man, Jesus, is celebrated in the northern spring.
Except that down here, at the bottom of the world, it’s all wrong. Our festivals are hemispherically out of sync with the ever-turning earth. Christmas is marked after the summer solstice, as the days grow shorter – not longer. The Easter resurrection falls in autumn, the season of culmination and decline. Winter’s harbinger. The dying year’s herald.
Unsurprisingly, as the decades have rolled over this lonely colonial outpost, the experiential core of our festivals has faded. Inevitably, their meaning has been forgotten. We Pakeha like to think of ourselves as modern and secular and progressive. In other eyes, however, we have become the sad, spiritually-barren, cultural amnesiacs of the South Pacific.
But now, from the first people of this far-flung land, we have been offered – and are poised to accept – the wondrous gift of Matariki. Here, at last, is a festival in sync with the place we Europeans-once-removed have, by the vicissitudes of history, washed up. These tiny points of light, rising steadily above the chill mid-winter horizon, told the Maori that, once again, the cycle of life and death, growth and decay, had described itself in the heavens. That it was time for those who dwell between the earth and the sky to look to their plantings. Time to anticipate the bright days of spring and summer. The flashing of fish in the baskets. The laughter of lovers. The crying of babies. That it was time to begin again.
And, perhaps, by accepting this gift of Matariki from the first arrivals in Aotearoa, we late arrivals, shorn of our ancestors’ outlandish fleeces, can draw strength from the accumulated human wisdom of our adopted home. Perhaps, by celebrating Matariki, we can learn to take ownership of our colonial intrusion and all the misery that has flowed from it. Perhaps it is time to let go of the desacralized holy-days of New Zealanders, and allow our Treaty partners to teach us how to be Aotearoans.
Let us learn the names of Matariki’s whanau: Tupu-ā-nuku, Tupu-ā-rangi, Waitī, Waitā, Waipunā-ā-rangi and Ururangi. Let us honour the Polynesian navigators who named them, and who followed them to these islands at the world’s end. Let this home-grown holy-day inaugurate a new cycle. Let Maori and Pakeha, steering by Matariki’s stars, make this their time to begin again.
This essay was published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 11 September 2020.