For many New Zealanders, 31 December means parties and celebrations to welcome the New Year. These celebrations are an important way of marking the passage of time as well as heralding new beginnings.

Depending on your religion or ethnicity, New Year can come at different times of the year and be celebrated in many ways. For example, there is the Chinese New Year or Spring Festival, the Muslim month of Muharram, and Rosh Hashanah, one of the most important religious holidays in the Jewish calendar. In Hebrew, Rosh Hashanah means the ‘head of the year’.

Māori also have their own New Year, which is marked by the rise of Matariki (the group of stars also known as the Pleiades star cluster or The Seven Sisters) and the sighting of the next new moon. Like Chinese New Year (and the Christian festival of Easter), its exact timing varies from year to year, but it usually occurs during the middle of winter. Traditionally, Matariki was used to determine the coming season's crop. A warmer season, and therefore a more productive crop yield, was indicated by how bright the stars were.

Matariki provides an ideal opportunity to explore the ways that people pass on and sustain aspects of their culture and heritage. The beginning of the 21st century has seen a revival in Matariki celebrations. It is becoming an increasingly important part of the New Zealand calendar. Some have compared Matariki to the American holiday of Thanksgiving or Halloween. 

Schools could adopt a cross-curriculum focus for the duration of Matariki. Some suggested approaches and activities have been included here, beginning with a general look at how we measure time.

Measuring time

Scientifically, the year is a complete cycle of seasons. A year is when the earth completes one full orbit of the sun. Its length is measured from one spring  quinox to the next spring equinox.

Measuring the time of year was important to most people. Knowing the season was vital when deciding to plant and harvest crops as well as managing livestock in colder climates. Other cultural and religious practices happened at specific times of the year, so it was important to have some sense of time.

The obelisks of ancient Egypt, dating from as far back as 3000 BCE, were used to measure the progress of the year by the length of the shadow they cast. Stonehenge in Britain was probably built for the same purpose. It measured the year by the sunrise and sunset angle on the horizon.

It is possible to use other, easily observed, signs of the passage of the year. The annual disappearance and re-appearance of the stars has been used by many cultures. Natural signs such as the blossoming or fruiting of particular plants or the migrations of birds have also been used to mark the passing of the seasons. Maori used a combination of the stars and the natural signs to determine their new year.

For centuries Western Christianity has referenced time in relation to the birth of Christ. The abbreviation AD stands for Anno Domini, the Latin term meaning ‘in the year of the Lord’. Years after the birth of Christ are AD while years before this were BC or ‘Before Christ’. (These days 'CE' – Common Era and 'BCE' – Before Common Era, are preferred) But for the Chinese, 2013 is a much older year. It is in fact the year 4711, 4710, or 4650, depending on which scholar you talk to. Some other New Year's celebrated around the world include:

Muharram – Muslim New Year

The Islamic year begins on the first day of the month of Muharram. It is counted from the year of the Hegira (Anno Hegirae), when Muhammad emigrated from Mecca to Medina (16 July 622 CE). The Islamic calendar is lunar so Muharram moves from year to year. Months in the Islamic calendar begin when the first crescent of a new moon is sighted. Muharram is derived from the word haram which means 'forbidden'. It is one of the four sacred months of the year in which fighting is prohibited. The Muslim New Year which begins on 4 November 2013 marks the beginning of 1435 AH.

Rosh Hashanah – Jewish New Year

Rosh Hashanah is one of the most important religious holidays in the Jewish calendar. In Hebrew, Rosh Hashanah means the ‘head of the year’, and it commemorates the creation of the world. It is observed on the first day of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. 

The Jewish calendar represents the number of years since creation, and this is calculated by adding up the ages of people in the Bible. So when we say that the year is 5763, that means 5763 years from the birth of Adam on the sixth day of Creation. On this basis the modern state of Israel was established in 5708.

The Jewish year is calculated by adding 3760 to what is known as the civil year; conversely, the civil year is obtained by subtracting 3760 from the Jewish year. So 2013 becomes 5773.

Matariki and social studies

Matariki, the Maori New Year, is an important festival that reflects our bi-cultural heritage. This page outlines how a study of Matariki can be used by teachers and students of social studies.

Further information

A fuller account of Matariki is on Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. See also the Matariki Collection on NZ On Screen.

Social studies

Matariki provides an ideal opportunity to explore the ways that people pass on and sustain aspects of their culture and heritage. An emphasis on customs and traditions and how they are retained and developed makes Matariki an excellent case study. Matariki could become a school-wide focus for its duration.

Matariki can be a springboard into further topics associated with the customs and practices of New Zealand’s first settlers. How do the customs and practices of tangata whenua compare with the experiences of other people who have settled in New Zealand?

Matariki can also be explored from the perspective of  the consequences of the migration of people and ideas. How has New Zealand's social and cultural calendar changed as a result of Maori settlement?

Matariki is a good time to consider how different cultures measure time. How and why we mark days, months and years is something we often take for granted. But they are all important aspects of cultural identity and history.

Matariki teaching activities

Measuring time

  1. Why do we bother to measure time in days, months and years?
  2. Why are there so many ways of measuring time? In a paragraph, of between four and six lines, explain why there are so many different calendars in the world.
  3. What are at least two things that these calendars seem to have in common?
  4. What are at least two major differences between the different calendars described?
  5. According to the Muslim and Jewish calendars, what year were you born in?
  6. Wouldn't it be simpler if there was just one, single calendar that applied to everyone? You could consider this as a class debate with teams of three debating the pros and cons of the concept. Normal debating rules apply. So that everyone can be involved, small groups could help prepare arguments that are then presented by selected speakers. Alternatively, each student could take a position on this statement and give their own view with supporting arguments.

Matariki: The Maori New Year

Refer to the material on Matariki available from Te Ara to help you complete these activities.

  1. In Māori what does Matariki mean?
  2. What are some of the explanations given for the origins of the cluster of stars associated with the Māori New Year?
  3. In traditional times what did Māori acknowledge with the arrival of Matariki?
  4. How did Matariki affect Māori farming?
  5. What role do kites (pakau) play in Māori celebrations of Matariki?

A school-wide celebration of Matariki

You and your classmates could organise a school-wide celebration of Matariki. As a class you could brainstorm ideas for activities the school could participate in. For instance, you could organise a kite festival, or design posters and art work that acknowledge and promote Matariki for display around the school. Another possibility could be drama performances that explore some of the stories and themes associated with Matariki.

Matariki and your community

Many communities run festivals and events to celebrate Matariki. Find out what’s happening in your community. Local newspapers, information centres and libraries are good places to start.

Storyboarding Matariki

There are a number of Māori legends associated with Matariki. Present one of these legends as an illustrated story. Your presentation should be no bigger than A3.

How to cite this page

'Matariki', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/te-akomanga/contexts-activities/matariki, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Apr-2022