Celebrating the Stars and Their Maker on Māori New Year

As Matariki is celebrated in New Zealand, Christians navigate a return to the festival’s pagan roots.

The appearance of the Matariki star cluster (also known as Pleiades) in the New Zealand sky just before sunrise in late June or early July marks the new year in traditional Māori culture. Celebrated with feasts, prayers at dawn, and time spent with family, Matariki is a time to remember those who died in the past year, celebrate and give thanks for the present, and look forward to the future.

After the British colonized New Zealand in the mid-1800s, traditional Māori practices began to decline, and by the 1940s, public celebration of Matariki had stopped. Yet since the 1990s, Māori culture has undergone a successful revival, leading the New Zealand government to designate Matariki as a national holiday in 2022, celebrated this year on June 28 (although the festivities continue until July 6). This re-indigenization has also elicited the reintroduction of traditional beliefs, including the worship of ancestors and a pantheon of gods.

For Christians, this has led to a parsing of what believers should and should not embrace when celebrating Matariki. CT spoke with Michael Drake, who is of English and Māori heritage, about Christianity’s legacy among the Māori people and how believers can engage with Matariki today. Drake worked in Christian education for 50 years, including as a teacher, principal, curriculum writer, and school founder. Today he pastors and writes books, including the 2023 explainer A Christian Looks at Matariki.

Could you describe what Matariki is?

Matariki is a celebration embedded as far back as we know in Māori culture. It celebrates the rising of the Matariki star constellation, which is the beginning of the new year in our culture and indicates when harvesting and planting should be timed.

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