I knew, of course, that 21 June was Matariki, the Maori New Year, and that it's linked to the appearance of the cluster of stars known as the Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters; you can see them when (says Te Ara) "the sun, drifting north on the shortest day in winter, reaches the north-eastern end of the horizon. The sun then turns around and begins its journey south."
What I didn't know until today is that as well as being about new beginnings, planting and fertility, Matariki is the time to remember those who have died in the past year. Here's what Te Ara, the online encyclopaedia of New Zealand, says about it:
"In times of old, the sighting of Matariki was greeted with expressions of grief for those who had died since its last appearance. Some said the stars housed the souls of those departed. Rangihuna Pire, in his 70s, remembered how as a child he was taken by his grandparents to watch for Matariki in mid-winter at Kaūpokonui, South Taranaki:
The old people might wait up several nights before the stars rose. They would make a small hāngī. When they saw the stars, they would weep and tell Matariki the names of those who had gone since the stars set, then the oven would be uncovered so the scent of the food would rise and strengthen the stars, for they were weak and cold."As it happens, even before I found out about this, I did think of Harvey at Matariki, both last year and this year. He set great store by the shortest day and the longest day, as the turning points of the year and the seasons. On 21 June 2010, he wrote:
"The shortest day - always one of my favourites. Reversing tracks, the sun turns north again and slowly our hemisphere will warm up again. A relatively mild morning, cloudless. By midday it had clouded over and the threatened rain seemed increasingly closer. Part of the penalty of living in a temperate climate. My decision to dwell in Wellington determines the climate and the weather in which I exist. I have no choice on that matter."
And of course he had no choice about its being the last time he would see the shortest day. The weather is worse this year, the rain pounding away yet again at the roof and the sodden garden. But the evenings will slowly get lighter now.