The appearance of the Matariki star cluster (also known as Pleiades) in the New Zealand sky just before sunrise in late June or early July marks the new year in traditional Māori culture. Celebrated with feasts, prayers at dawn, and time spent with family, Matariki is a time to remember those who died in the past year, celebrate and give thanks for the present, and look forward to the future.

After the British colonized New Zealand in the mid-1800s, traditional Māori practices began to decline, and by the 1940s, public celebration of Matariki had stopped. Yet since the 1990s, Māori culture has undergone a successful revival, leading the New Zealand government to designate Matariki as a national holiday in 2022, celebrated this year on June 28 (although the festivities continue until July 6). This re-indigenization has also elicited the reintroduction of traditional beliefs, including the worship of ancestors and a pantheon of gods.

For Christians, this has led to a parsing of what believers should and should not embrace when celebrating Matariki. CT spoke with Michael Drake, who is of English and Māori heritage, about Christianity’s legacy among the Māori people and how believers can engage with Matariki today. Drake worked in Christian education for 50 years, including as a teacher, principal, curriculum writer, and school founder. Today he pastors and writes books, including the 2023 explainer A Christian Looks at Matariki.

Could you describe what Matariki is?

Matariki is a celebration embedded as far back as we know in Māori culture. It celebrates the rising of the Matariki star constellation, which is the beginning of the new year in our culture and indicates when harvesting and planting should be timed.

Rather than one unified group, the Māori are made up of different tribes with different customs, and we recognize the event in different ways. Yet there are common themes of eating, fellowshiping, and praying.

We cook hāngī by digging a hole in the ground and placing big rocks on the bottom and lighting a fire on top of it. After fighting the fire off, you put meat, fish, cabbage, and kūmara (sweet potato) in baskets in there with lots of water and cover it up with dirt. A few hours later, you open it up and the food is steamed.

It is a celebration of the new year. At that level, it’s something that Christians might well celebrate.

But traditional Māori culture is deeply animistic. There are prayers and incantations to the stars. The ancestors who died in the previous year are believed to have migrated to the stars, the Matariki constellation in particular. During the feast, the steam rising from the food you’re cooking goes up as a prayer to the stars, the ancestors, and those who died in the last year.

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Did you celebrate Matariki growing up?

No, I was raised post–World War II at a time when my parents, who didn’t look overtly Māori, were able to hide the fact. I knew I had Māori ancestors but didn’t know I was Māori. They did this to keep us safe, due to the prevalent racism against Māori in New Zealand society.

It wasn’t until I was about 20 and went to college that I really understood my Māori heritage. It was quite exciting to see what my ancestry was and also to learn the significance of the gospel in Māori history.

How did the gospel come to the Māori people?

Anglican missionaries proclaimed the gospel to the Māori on Christmas Day in 1814. Over the years, God turned hearts massively. At the time, Māori were using muskets and cannons to fight each other, decimating the population. In God’s providence, Māori were ready for the gospel as they saw the promise of peace. Missionary Henry Williams came here in 1823 and established trust with them. He stood in the middle of a battlefield and told them to put down their rounds because God commanded them to live in peace.

By 1860, 80 percent of Māori were attending church on Sundays. The three keys to the Māori rapidly accepting the gospel were the preaching of the gospel, the translation of Scriptures into the Māori language (there was no written language previously), and the Māori themselves becoming evangelists.

How did the introduction of Christianity change their beliefs and practices?

There was a massive abandonment of pagan religion. The Scriptures were their rule of life. For example, in northern New Zealand, a group of chiefs each had multiple wives. As they read the Scriptures, they felt that was wrong—they should have only one wife. They decided to build a village where the surplus wives would be housed and placed under their protection so that they could be the husbands of one wife. They sought husbands for the other women. They worked out for themselves how the Scripture should be applied.

Christmas and Easter were celebrated. Matariki was celebrated in terms of celebrating family and community and thanking God for the food, the harvest, and the promise of a new year.

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Based on the 2018 census, only 30 percent of Māori say they are Christian. What led to this large drop in the faith?

In the 1860s, the military confiscated massive amounts of Māori land, which led to the Māori’s alienation from Christianity. Many Māori lost confidence in the gospel and in the church as they associated the European settlers with the faith. The colonizers stripped Māori of their land, their territory, and their identity.

A hundred years later, in the middle of the 20th century, Māori tried to rebuild their identity again, and many resorted to the old paganism. Celebrations like Matariki, which many Christians celebrated simply as a new year, returned to being a pagan festival.

The government is now promoting Matariki in a religious way. State schools are being supplied with specially written prayers and incantations, which they claim are not religious but cultural. Some Māori young people are coming to believe in the traditional deities, and even non-Māori take part in it. That’s impacting the church, as many of our churches are struggling to reach Māori and be seen as open. You get quite a bit of syncretism in evangelical churches today.

How are Christians responding to prayers to Māori gods and deities happening in the workplace and taught at schools?

Most Christians are not quite sure what to do with it. Public events will often open with a kind of karakia or prayer. It depends on who is doing the karakia: A Christian would pray to God, while someone who isn’t Christian will pray to the stars or earth or ancestors. When Christians ask what to do in those situations, I say you just don’t have to say “Amen.”

There are all sorts of situations where as Christians, we see things going on [and] we do not have to participate in them, nor do we have to be antagonistic to them. We’re called to be wise and prudent. I think there’s a danger that we’ve become too confrontational about things we don’t need to confront.

We have an opportunity to share the gospel. You see that with Paul in Athens speaking about the unknown god. He says, Let's talk about him; I can tell you about him. This is a classic example of how we can use the culture without confronting it. On the other hand, in Ephesus and Philippi, they did have to confront the culture. There comes a time when you have to.

What was New Zealanders’ reaction when the government decided to make Matariki a public holiday?

There’s a significant group of non-Māori New Zealanders who are bitterly opposed to anything Māori. Sadly, there are a lot of Christians among them—they just don’t understand it; they can’t stand it. On the other hand, there are people who think it’s wonderful to celebrate Māori culture. In the middle are a large number of New Zealanders who are not particularly concerned; they are fairly benign toward different cultures as long as they don’t have to do anything about it.

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What aspects of the festivals should Christians partake in?

We can celebrate the rising of Matariki and the fact that God has built the universe and continues to rule it in a way that for centuries Māori have been able to identify when this was going to happen. We celebrate the wonderful order in creation that declares the glory of God.

A lot of Christians will get up and pray during the dawn of Matariki because it is tradition to pray at that time. I personally avoid anything that can be misunderstood by somebody. To me the gods mean nothing, but if somebody sees me praying at dawn, they could misinterpret it.

Other Christians are quite happy to do that. I have no problem with that at all; it's perfectly right. You have that freedom in the gospel. Matariki is fun—it’s fellowship; it’s talking about those who have recently died and building family relationships.

Last year, I put out this booklet on how Christians can engage with Matariki, written for non-Māori believers unfamiliar with the holiday. I also opened the church service with a Matariki greeting and encouraged people to embrace it as a celebration of God’s grace.

How do you see Matariki as an evangelism opportunity?

This week, a handyman who came to fix my burglar alarm asked me what I thought of Matariki, and I got to share with him that God set the stars in their place.

He responded, “But [the universe is] so huge it doesn’t need us.”

“Yes, that shows how great God is,” I said. This is the type of conversation I’m happy to have around Matariki.

I cited Genesis 8:22 to him: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” We have not only a glorious God but a constant God, a reliable God, a faithful God. All these you can show through Matariki. It’s an exciting time to share the gospel: Jesus is the bright and morning star.