A Long-Awaited Holiday

Public holidays in a country say more about its national identity than we might think. Sometimes these dates are inherited from old colonial times; others are a reminder of heroic feats; occasionally they are meant to commemorate an instance of grief and, on many occasions, they are a symbol of religious beliefs. In any case, they are part of the cultural and political life of a country. They are inserted in legal norms and eventually become part of a collective DNA. Nevertheless, public holidays often universalize the already dominant practices and understandings in society, and eventually discriminate against other societal groups.

In Austria, the law around paid public holiday on Good Friday states that only members of the Evangelical Churches of the Augsburg and Helvetic Confessions, the Catholic Church, and the United Methodist Church are entitled to obtain additional pay if they work on that day. Workers who belong to another religion, or do not belong to any, are denied holiday pay on Good Friday.

There are approximately 10 national public holidays in New Zealand, and apart from Waitangi Day, most of them are related to a Christian tradition or a with some idea of a European legacy: Christmas Day, Boxing Day, Good Friday, Easter Monday, and Queen’s Birthday, to name some. In many of these days, TV and radio advertisements are kept to a minimum, the shops and retailers that can open are only permitted to do business under certain conditions, and selling alcohol is almost forbidden. The above is not in any way regrettable or undesirable. These holidays are special for New Zealand society and are part of a meaningful cultural identity. Having said that, other cultural identities are also important.

Before continuing, I will say that I do not have any Indigenous background, and although I live in New Zealand, I am not a New Zealander either, and this article about the Matariki celebration only reflects a genuine and personal interest in Indigenous Peoples’ culture and the construction of more inclusive democracies.

Matariki is the Māori name for the constellation known as the Pleiades or “Seven Sisters”. It is part of the religious identity of Māoris and for many tribes in Aotearoa, its first sight around June represented the beginning of a new year. In February 2021 Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that on Friday 24 June 2022, New Zealand will hold its first Matariki public holiday, the first new public holiday in 50 years since the introduction of Waitangi Day. This is not just the result of an election pledge made during the election process last year, but also reflects a more receptive trend around Māori cultural and religious practices.

The idea of a Matariki public holiday started, at least in parliament, around 2009 when Māori Party’s Rahui Katene introduced the Matariki Bill. Unfortunately, parliament decided that time that there was no need for an additional holiday. The Bill lost on its first reading. Despite that, Matariki celebrations have gained notoriety in both quantity and relevance. In 2017 for instance, Wellington decided to change its Guy Fawkes fireworks display for a Matariki celebration. Christchurch did the same and will hold its first Matariki celebration on July 10. The above without mentioning the Te Papa o annual Matariki public programme and the celebration of the Māori new year by the Auckland City Council since the early 2000s.

The resurgence of Matariki among New Zealanders should also foment the discussion around the legitimization of other Indigenous ideas of the world and what they can add in terms of inclusion, spirituality, culture, and sustainability. The long-awaited inclusion of the Matariki public holiday not only affirms the multicultural identity of New Zealand but should also reflect a coherent strategy to address other issues and tensions affecting Māori communities in Aotearoa New Zealand.