Why Matariki is Great for Our National Identity

Why Matariki is Great for Our National Identity

By Kurt Bradley

Christmas in New Zealand can feel out of place during the height of Summer. Recreating a Northern Hemisphere experience with Mid Winter Christmas parties can feel a bit forced, particularly when we have our own unique Winter celebration. Matariki offers Kiwi’s a chance to gather over the colder months in a way that truly fits our culture. Although still developing as an official public holiday, Matariki is an age-old tradition that offers a meaningful, unifying national celebration.

I love Christmas. Everything about it. Some of my favourite Christmases have been when I’ve been lucky enough to be in the Northern Hemisphere to celebrate it. Christmas is a festival designed for the dark and the cold—a winter solstice. Every December, New Zealand goes through a strange identity clash. So many people like me are continually trying to shoehorn a winter celebration into the start of summer. Every year, as I happily sit down on a 28-degree day to eat roast turkey and plum pud, I realise that, as much as I enjoy it, this doesn’t make sense. 

Growing up, I recall a trend of people holding ‘Mid-Winter Christmas’ parties. It was (and is) a desperate attempt to fulfil our desires for a winter celebration and bring some fun and joy to the grimmest time of the year. We enjoy the hot foods, glowing lights, and warming drinks when it actually makes sense. But even as a young punk living in the suburbs who didn’t have any class or sophistication (still don’t), it always seemed forced, out of place, and just a bit naff. Unfortunately, due to our colonial heritage, we seem to be stuck with a global calendar that doesn’t fit. 

And that’s why I love Matariki. It’s the answer to this problem. It has the potential to evolve into a national celebration that makes sense for our place, our people, and our culture. By scratching the itch for a warming, winter celebration, Matariki potentially frees us to enjoy Christmas as a summer celebration without needing all the wintry associations that people like me love so much. 

Personally, and I think for many New Zealanders, I don’t yet know how to celebrate Matariki or what to do with the day off we now get every year. It’s the same for a ‘summer Christmas.’ The reality is that these things take generations, even centuries, to clearly form. Aotearoa is in the infancy of this process with Matariki. It’s also a bit more complicated because, for many of us, there is a cultural element we don’t feel properly equipped to embrace. I hope that over time, this understanding will continue to develop, and Matariki will become a distinct celebration everyone can wholly enjoy and engage with.

I have often heard the call to keep Matariki uncommercial. Although I respect that perspective, I also understand that the reality is we live in a commercial world. The biggest events, moments, movements, and cultural trends are rooted in some commercial environment. Not only is it a sign of success to have commercial activity attempting to leverage an occasion, but it is also part of how we can continue to promote and celebrate Matariki.

It is commonly known that the Coca-Cola brand had a major hand in evolving the persona and character of not only Santa Claus but also Christmas itself. Although they did not invent it, they helped the world embrace and popularise it. Is that a bad thing? Think of the immeasurable global joy and meaning that has been delivered. It has been a wonderful thing. Similarly, as more and more brands in Aotearoa join in the celebration of Matariki with campaigns, events, products, design, and creativity, it will all be part of communicating and forming the wider public understanding of what Matariki is and making it a national occasion fit for the season, that belongs to us, and something that we love. 

I’m massively intrigued to see what Matariki looks like 30 years from now, I can only imagine. So, for now, post your Matariki recipes, tell everyone what you’re doing to mark the day, and share your photos. As we share and learn from each other, the best tasting, most enjoyed and fitting traditions will naturally emerge, shaping our new national winter celebration.  

Mānawatia a Matariki!