HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT MATARIKI? Are you delighted that, at last, New Zealand has a holiday entirely unrelated to its colonial heritage? A holiday, moreover, that celebrates the natural cycles of a South Pacific island chain, rather than the western extremities of a vast northern continent. Coinciding with the Winter Solstice, Matariki, like Christmas in its original setting, marks the year’s turning: away from the constraining darkness; towards the liberating light.
Or, do you see Matariki as something contrived and imposed? A festival seized upon for ideological purposes? A holiday with an agenda attached?
And how does that make you feel? Guilty? Do you blame yourself for harbouring sentiments driven, consciously or unconsciously, by racism? Or, does it make you feel angry? Do you blame the Government for creating a holiday that highlights the cultural differences between its citizens? Are you antagonised by the state’s presumption that these differences are something to be celebrated?
Then again, you may be a strong believer in secularism. If you’re “not big on religion”, as most non-religious Kiwis tend to say when subjected to spiritual inquiries, you may be experiencing a twinge or two of impatience when you see, hear and read references to Matariki that embrace without challenge its overtly religious content. Your brow may furrow even more deeply when you consider the likely consequences of attempting such a challenge.
Is it not the height of hypocrisy to laugh along with the atheists who poke fun at the Christian eucharist, only to recoil in horror from the suggestion that there might be something just a wee bit peculiar about offering-up a cooked meal to a random configuration of stars?
For a country which, historically, has eschewed the very idea of a state religion, isn’t it also a little jarring to hear state broadcasters helpfully instructing New Zealanders on the ways in which their new state-sanctioned religious festival can be appropriately celebrated?
As anyone who has ever watched the excellent television programme, Waka Huia, will attest, Te Ao Māori pulses with spiritual life. Mountains, rivers, forests, the stars that fill the sky, all are sentient and powerful entities. One approaches them with reverence – and caution – as is fitting when dealing with ancient and holy ancestors to which one is inextricably and irrevocably connected.
It is to be wondered if the men and women who walk in this world are pleased, or alarmed, when they see Matariki – and all it portends – transformed into a public holiday, thoughtfully supplemented with a handy Cole’s Notes summary of the complex spiritual significance of the nine rising stars. Will they experience the emotions of devout Christians as Christmas and Easter approach?
To those who sincerely embrace the Christian faith, these public holidays have been transformed into crass orgies of commercialism. Santa and the Easter Bunny have ruthlessly shoved aside the manger and the cross. People stuff their faces: they bicker, fight, get drunk; and, just maybe, shed a maudlin tear when a particularly effective rendition of “Silent Night” rises above the hubbub of the shopping-mall.
Not that this bothers the overwhelming majority of Kiwis, for whom Christmas was long ago transformed into a celebration of family and friendship. Not for us the dark of winter. Our Christmas is a secular quest for sunshine and happy release. We Pakeha are a people of the middle: beginnings and endings are not really our style.
This gift of Matariki, then, what will be made of it? Can a people spiritually unconnected to anything other than their digital devices truly appreciate the relentless progress of gods and heroes across the heavens? The elders of Maoridom must wonder. Can Te Ao Māori be concentrated into the equivalent of spiritual orange-juice – to be distributed freely every June in a handy cultural packet? “Here you are Tau Iwi – just add water!”
Isn’t it possible that Matariki may yet prove a cure for, rather than a cause of, racist contention? Maybe, as the Earth grows warmer, and the pretensions of science and modernity are increasingly laid bare, the hunger of all Aotearoans for gods and heroes will increase. Perhaps, when we realise that these islands are all we’ve got, the thought may grow in our hearts and minds: If all things are, indeed, related and alive, then why not be guided by the stars?
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 June 2022.