On Waiheke Island, 5m high bursts of flame from the headlands overlooking the ferry terminal will help celebrate Matariki – the Maori New Year. It's one of more than 100 events making up the Auckland Council-backed, $500,000 Matariki Festival 2018.

Not to be outdone, in Wellington, the city council has transferred its annual Guy Fawkes fireworks display to mid-July, making it the anchor event in the capital's $250,000 mid-winter celebrations.

And while some might quibble about the authenticity of exploding fireworks and flame-throwers as part of the traditional Matariki experience, one suspects that given their instant love affair with muskets, the old tribal leaders would have quickly embraced these pyrotechnic entertainments.

What appeals to me about the re-emergence of this indigenous mid-winter festival is that for once, we have a community party that is rooted in the traditions of this land and its people. Tribal traditions may differ, but the basic details are agreed, of it being a post-harvest get-together, triggered by the rising of the Matariki (Pleiades) star cluster in the northeast sky. A time to contemplate the past year, plan the future and have a good feed. Sound vaguely familiar? Well throw in a decorated pine tree, and it could pass as the Christmas celebrations invented by late Victorian England.


It seems so genuine, compared, for instance, with that recent foreign import, Halloween, greedily nurtured by The Warehouse and rival retailers, all jostling to make a quick buck out of junk fancy dress costumes and sugary sweets.

It's also more relevant than most of our existing public holidays. The annual provincial birthdays for example, when we give ourselves a day off to carry on forgetting the failed experiment in federal government that ended way back in 1876! The recent long weekend we all took to mark our foreign-domiciled Queen's fake birthday was hardly a riotous day of community bonding either.

Even Christmas and Easter, now shed of their religious connections by most, are Northern Hemisphere festivals marking mid-winter and spring, awkwardly transplanted by the British colonists into a land where the seasons are reversed. Matariki, on the other hand, belongs. And as yet, the retailers haven't leapt on to the bandwagon to turn it into a cash cow, partly, I suspect, because it's hard for them to pin the beast down.

In particular there's the date. True, Easter floats about a bit, tied to the appearance of the first full moon after the vernal equinox, whatever that might mean. The important thing is the experts seem to agree, and everyone goes along with it - unless you belong to the Orthodox Church, but let's not go there…

Pinpointing Matariki seems more complicated. Different iwi have different traditions. For instance, the Wellington official guide tells locals to "Keep an eye out in late May or early June for Matariki to rise on the northeast horizon…" As a result, Wellington's festivities kick off this Friday, June 15 and end on July 7 with the big fireworks extravaganza.

That gives them a two week start on Auckland, whose festival runs from June 30 to July 22, in order to "incorporate the lunar phases that will see the star cluster Matariki [Pleiades] rise during the festival."

The Museum of New Zealand-Te Papa guide seems to suggest it's one of those Oxford University versus Cambridge University issues. Which authority do you accept. Do you follow the iwi that celebrates at the first full moon following the reappearance of the seven Matariki stars, or do you hold back and go with the tribes that wait until the arrival of the next new moon. To add to the confusion, iwi living to the west of the Southern Alps and south of Mt Taranaki who can't see the rising of Matariki, date the new year from the rising of another star all together, Puanga, which rises earlier than Matariki. The Auckland tribe, Te Kawerau a Maki, is another taking its lead from Puanga, which is clearer to see over the Manukau Harbour, than Matariki.

Still, do we really need a set national date? If we can celebrate long dead provinces at different times of the year according to regional tradition, then why not Matariki also.