Explainer: What is Matariki and why is it our newest holiday?

Source: 1News

Matariki is a star cluster known around the world by many names, most commonly Pleiades.

Its appearance in midwinter signals the Māori New Year/ Te Mātahi o te Tau. Although the exact date changes, it usually rises in June or July for a three-week period.

This year, New Zealand also observes it as its newest public holiday.

Though many people have been celebrating Matariki for years, some may not know much about it.

Why has Matariki become a holiday?

The Green Party was the first to push for it to become a public holiday.

Labour pledged in 2020 it would make Matariki an official public holiday should the party be re-elected. They were, and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the time said it would be a distinctly New Zealand holiday and a time for reflection, celebration and to look to the future.

An advisory group was created to provide advice on future dates, how it should be celebrated and education around Matariki.

Legislation setting up Matariki as a public holiday passed in Parliament in April 2022.

Finding Matariki: How to spot the iconic star cluster

Māori astronomer Dr Rangi Mātāmua was part of the advisory group and a driving force behind it becoming an official holiday. He says Matariki is a holiday that is directly linked to where Aotearoa is in the world.

"Matariki's about bringing people together for unity, for identity. There isn't a single person living in Aotearoa who does not descend from ancestors who used the stars to navigate, to tell time, to plant, to harvest.

"I hope that they serve as a cluster of stars and a symbolic message to us all to come together and celebrate who we are."

Dr Rangi Mātāmua

Matariki's family of stars - each one has its own significance

Matariki is made up of several hundred stars, but only a handful are visible to the naked eye.

First up, there's Pōhutukawa. Many Māori believe that this is the star which guides the dead across the night sky. When the cluster returns to the horizon just before the sunrises, the dead of the year make their final journey into the sky. They then become stars in the sky for eternity.

Then as far as geneology goes, Mātāmua says Tupuānuku is next. It means to grow in the ground, and is connected to all of the kai/produce which we get from the ground.

Tupuārangi is the star that's connected to the forest - to bird life, and the harvesting of food products grown in trees or above the ground such as fruit.

Waitī is fresh water. It's the star that is linked to fresh water and all the creatures that live in the rivers, the streams and the lakes - particularly eels. Waitā is salt water and is linked to the moana, and the many kinds of food that can be gathered from the sea.

The next star in the cluster is Waipuna-ā-rangi, which means water from the sky. It will determine whether there will be a drought, or an abundance of rain for that season.

READ MORE: Why Matariki isn't a marker for the Māori New Year in some areas

Ururangi is linked to the winds. Māori have hundreds of names for different winds.

The Matariki star cluster.

The youngest star in the cluster is Hiwa-i-te-rangi. This is the star where we can send our wishes, hopes and dreams for the year.

Mātāmua says each of these stars, are the children of the central and biggest star of them all - Matariki. She is the mother of the cluster.

He says that when the stars rise as one group, Matariki hunga nui, that's when everyone should gather together and unite as one.

"All of them feed into the wellbeing of people and that's what Matariki represents," Mātāmua says.

"When Matariki is bright, it's a sign of peace and a sign of wellbeing for people on earth."