A long list of names were read out as people gathered around a blazing fire during Puanga Awa Karakia in Whanganui.

For Whanganui, Puanga is the celebration of the Māori New Year, known elsewhere as Matariki.

The names were those of people who had died during the preceding year, and were remembered by a large crowd of warmly dressed people during the annual event on June 26.

The gathering at the Putiki slipway began at 5.45am, in a frosty moonlit pre-dawn.

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Karakia and ruruku (traditional chants) were given as people walked slowly down to the water's edge and splashed themselves. As they waited a waka arrived from upriver, with a fire blazing aboard.

The paddlers brought the fire ashore, and people gathered around as prayers were said and the names of the deceased read out. Taonga puoro player Elise Goodge provided music from a nguru, a traditional instrument often used at tangi to connect the living and those who have passed away.

"Taonga puoro were always a feature of ceremony, but that has largely been lost," she said.

People were then called on to Putiki Marae for kōrero in the meeting house, Te Paku o Te Rangi, and then a very full breakfast in the Aotea dining hall.

As it was eaten Puanga organiser Nicole Dryden and presenters Ash Pātea and Āwhina Twomey talked about the meaning of the celebrations, which have been open to the public in Whanganui since the early 2000s.

Twomey named all the stars around Puanga (Rigel) as it appears in the winter dawn. She said Māori used the stars to make important decisions, like when to plant and harvest.

Entertainment was traditional for Māori during this new year season, and travelling entertainers used to provide story and song.

Whanganui's Puanga celebrations stretch until August 25 this year, with the final event the Kaumātua Kapahaka Extravaganza at Whanganui City College.

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Before that there are craft activities at the Sarjeant Gallery, a two-week holiday programme at the district library, three talks in the Davis Lecture Theatre, a traditional kai night, the Te Manu Atatū Māori Business Awards, an exhibition opening and a whakapapa research evening.

Whanganui District Council, Te Puni Kokiri, Whanganui Māori Regional Tourism and the Whanganui Regional Museum are key sponsors of the events.