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Matariki: New Year’s in New Zealand

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New Zealand is a beautiful island in the South Pacific. It’s famous for its incredible countryside, stunning beaches and fascinating culture. The island was originally inhabited by the Mãori, an ancient people who still keep their tradition and culture going strong today. One of the most exciting times of year to visit is in June when they celebrate the Mãori New Year or “Matariki”.

Various tribes in New Zealand traditionally celebrated this at different times, all of them falling around* May or June. The Mãori word, which literally translates as “eyes of god” or “little eyes” is the name for the “Pleiades”, a cluster* of mid-winter stars that come out at this time of the year. Some of the tribes would celebrate the rising* of these stars, while others focused on different astronomical occurrences that take place* around the same time.

As with any good traditional event, there’s a story behind it. For the Mãori, the myth goes that the sky father, Ranginui and the earth mother, Papatãnuku were separated by their children. For some reason, the god of the winds called Tãwhirimãtea became so angry that he tore his eyes out* and threw them into the heavens, which are the stars they see in the night sky. This strange story is the backdrop for a beautiful festival where the dead are remembered and new life is celebrated.
In mid-June, different towns and cities around New Zealand become alive with a flurry* of activity for the ‘festival of lights,’ which celebrates Matariki. This involves a whole host of different sights, sounds, and smells that include local crafts and a banquet.

One of the most eye-catching crafts is the different wooden items you can buy with delicate designs on them. Wood carving* has been practiced in Mãori culture since ancient times, and a lot of it can be found during the festival. It isn’t just used to make items for sale, many objects and structures that they use in real life are elaborately decorated with carvings, from canoes and houses to ceremonial weapons. The craft is known as ‘whakairo rakau’ in the local language and the tools used to carve the beautiful and difficult patterns are traditionally made from ‘greenstone,’ a substance that is famous for its strength.

But woodcarving isn’t the only craft on display. Flax is a type of plant that grows abundantly in New Zealand. Its long, green leaves are used in another one of the Mãori’s traditional crafts, where they weave the different strands together to make a number of objects. In the past, it would have been used for to make baskets or even clothes. While these traditional items can still be found at the festival, artisan handbags or even bracelets can also be bought there.

Of course no celebration would be complete without food. This festival isn’t just a celebration of the new year but also the harvest, so, in some areas, guests are encouraged to take produce* from their own gardens. Then, later in the day, everyone joins in a large shared banquet. All kinds of food are eaten there but a traditional way of cooking it is with something called a ‘hangi’. A hangi is an oven, where the ground is dug out and meat and vegetable are covered in leaves and baked over hot stones. Normally this would feature food like lamb, pork, shellfish, vegetables, and herbs.

After everyone has been fed, the sun goes down and the light display starts in earnest. Trees and plants are lit up with different bright colours, buildings are rigged* with lights and you may even see people performing with fire. It’s a beautiful time that helps brighten up the cold winter months, while celebrating a rich and ancient culture.

Author: Joshua Burns

Glossary

Falling around – more or less at
Cluster – group of similar things or people close together
Rising – going up
Take place – occur
To tear out – to remove forcibly
Flurry of activity – a lot of movement and activity
Carving – using a tool to make a pattern or shape an object out of material
Produce – fresh fruit or vegetables
Rigged – equipment is set up

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