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Thomas Wynne: Why Matariki makes more sense than Santa Claus

Saturday 29 June 2024 | Written by Thomas Tarurongo Wynne | Published in Editorials, Opinion


Thomas Wynne: Why Matariki makes more sense than Santa Claus
Thomas Wynne.

As Aotearoa celebrates Matariki, the Māori New Year, it gives us time to reflect on how we too could add a day to our year that celebrates our Māori worldview, those of our tūpuna, and the vast expanse of ocean they navigated and the knowledge they carried with them, writes Thomas Tarurongo Wynne.

From vaka to vaka, island to island, and people to people, we carried this kete of knowledge, ‘akono’anga, our Pe’u Masori, and celebrated Matariki as well.

Santa Claus in his red suit and reindeer, a Northern Hemisphere winter solstice celebration of the New Year, makes little to no sense at all in the middle of the Moana Nui O Kiva for a people who never see snow, let alone reindeer.

Matariki is a significant event celebrated across all of the Moana and Polynesia, marked by the sighting of the Matariki star cluster, also known as the Pleiades. This event signifies for us renewal, reflection, and connection to the natural and spiritual world. Its importance and significance for us as Māori spans aspects of life, including agriculture, navigation, community, and spirituality, reflecting the holistic worldview of Moana societies and their interconnectedness to the ocean, the soil, the sky, and each other.

Matariki holds deep cultural and historical significance throughout Polynesia. The reappearance of the Matariki cluster in the early morning sky signals the beginning of the new year and the onset of winter in the Southern Hemisphere, typically occurring in late May or early June.

Traditionally, this period was a critical sign for preparing the land and community for the upcoming seasons. Communities would come together to celebrate the harvest, honour tūpuna, and plan for future endeavours on land and across the Moana, emphasising yet again the cyclical nature of life and our intergenerational connection ki mua, ki muri to that world of Te Ao Māori.

Matariki was traditionally celebrated throughout Polynesia, including in Aotearoa, the island states of what we now call the Cook Islands, Tahiti, and Hawai’i. In each location, specific customs and practices varied but shared common themes of gratitude, remembrance, and community gathering.

In Aotearoa, Māori communities would celebrate with communal feasts, storytelling, and traditional music and dance. Families would gather to honour their ancestors, reflect on the past year, and set new goals for the future.

In the Cook Islands, Matariki involved similar practices. Communities held feasts, shared stories, and participated in cultural activities.

In the Kingdom of Hawai’i, the celebration of Matariki, known as “Makaliʻi”, was part of the Makahiki festival.

For our cousins in Tahiti Nui, the Pleiades were called “Matari’i”, marking the beginning of their new year.

Agriculture is a cornerstone of Polynesian life, and Matariki plays a crucial role in guiding planting and harvesting practices. The timing of the stars’ appearance aligns with the end of the harvest season, offering a moment to celebrate the bounty of the land. Observations of the stars brightness and position provided essential indicators for determining the best planting times. A bright and clear Matariki was seen as a sign of an abundant harvest, while dim stars warned of a challenging season ahead. This practice illustrates the deep connection between the people and their environment, highlighting the importance of celestial bodies in sustaining life.

In both agriculture and navigation, Matariki was significant in Māori astronomy. The knowledge of stars and constellations was crucial for our Moana voyaging, with the Matariki cluster, along with other celestial markers, serving as navigational tools to guide our voyagers across the Moana.

Matariki is especially meaningful for us as a family, as our granddaughter is named Hiwa-i-te-Rangi, after the star of aspirations and dreams for the future. She carries the name of our sister and great aunt, Te Rangitopi te Tonga, who was married to Momoa Eteke Teava from Tupapa.

For all that Matariki offers as a way to celebrate who we are as Māori, why would we continue to celebrate this large guy in a red suit, sitting on a sleigh in the snow, pulled by reindeer? It reminds us just how influenced by others, and their view of the world, we really are and that we have an opportunity to see the world from our perspective and not from the eyes of others.