Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire on New Zealand

Toby Manhire: Flying a kite for our own Christmas

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Couldn't we add an occasion in the middle of the year to gather with loved ones at a time of year when it makes sense? Maori already have exactly the celebration we need, so let's make it official and have some mid-winter fun.

The traditional Maori festival of Matariki is an occasion for gatherings of family and friends ... and for flying kites. Photo / Sarah Ivey
The traditional Maori festival of Matariki is an occasion for gatherings of family and friends ... and for flying kites. Photo / Sarah Ivey

As anyone on the West Coast will tell you, New Zealand weather around the Christmas period is far from reliably golden. Our nostalgia for sun-bleached New Year's holidays is probably the product of a collective, selective memory editing.

But good fortune has served up one of those mythic summers for some of us. In Wellington for Christmas, it was the hottest day just about anyone could remember.

Even the jellyfish looked blissed out. We timed it just right in heading north for New Year to Auckland, where the only sign of a crowd was down at the beach.

But that's quite enough what-I-did-in-my-holiday. The thing is this: amid all that hotness, I found myself thinking about winter. For most of the last decade, living in the Northern Hemisphere, Christmas and New Year was a very different sensation. Over there, the festive ballyhoo, heartfelt and crass, lights up the place like a campfire, a happy distraction from the short days and wretched skies.

It delivers a midwinter fillip, something to revel in, something to look forward to.

Christmas in New Zealand has evolved from the European import - the numbers who adhere to the full-on roast and trimmings and hot sweaty pudding are becoming as rare as walk shorts. Santa gets a surf board, and devises alternative access to chimney-less houses. Camping, beach cricket, barbecues, you know the list - the Antipodean Christmas has a lot to recommend it.

But what about winter? Couldn't we add an occasion in the middle of the year to gather with loved ones at a time of year when it makes sense? Wouldn't the mood be lifted if we had half an eye on that big hot dinner, the mulled wine, the toasting of absent friends, the ostentatious mayoral firework displays?

What to call this mid-year celebration? The strong temptation is to argue for a real-world trial of "Festivus" ("for the rest of us"), the parody-holiday popularised in an episode of Seinfeld.

Fun, but no. A much better fit, not least because it's already widely celebrated, is the traditional Maori New Year. The emergence into view of a cluster of stars named Matariki, which the Greeks called the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters, has long been seen by Maori as the signal New Year celebrations should begin. It marked a moment when crop stores tended to be at their fullest. It was a time, they say, for remembering the dead, for giving thanks for life, for coming together. It was and is marked by the flying of kites. Kites! What's not to like about kites?

The resurgence of Matariki, and its embrace as an occasion for gatherings of family and friends, has been going on for years now. The month-long Matariki Festival in Auckland goes from strength to strength, as do similar events around the country. Te Papa has poured plenty of energy into the occasion, and it has become an important part of school curricula. For young New Zealanders, it is already a core part of the calendar.

Its growth, or revival, is such that the state should now recognise that by providing the national imprimatur of a public holiday. An attempt by former Maori Party MP Rahui Katene to introduce such a day, to be held on the first new moon after Matariki rises, was thwarted by the kite-hating miserablists in 2009, but fresh efforts are reportedly on the cards.

Given the bean-counters' opposition to the "Monday-ising" of Waitangi and Anzac Days, citing productivity concerns, it hardly seems likely that an entirely new statutory holiday will be easily introduced. So the simplest thing will be to bin the quaintly anachronistic Queen's Birthday holiday in favour of one for Matariki. It's not even really her birthday. She won't notice.

A new, midwinter Matariki holiday, at the heart of a New Year festival, is just the sort of tonic we could use. Family, friends, food, drink, reflection. Similar to many of the New Year festivities other cultures enjoy, and yet uniquely New Zealand: forged by Maori and Pakeha together and free of the political preconceptions that people bring to debates about the function of Waitangi or Anzac Days.

- NZ Herald

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