Australians have become used to enduring annual angst and strident debate over whether to move Australia Day from January 26 in a mark of respect for Indigenous trauma associated with the date.
So it was with great curiosity and some envy to witness the joyous scenes coming out of New Zealand or Aotearoa at the weekend as it marked its first (some argue it's the world's first) officially designated Indigenous public holiday, a profound shift – even for a nation as culturally inclusive and aware as this.
Across the country, New Zealanders celebrated Matariki, the Maori New Year, an occasion that does not ask people to make resolutions or to party hard, but rather to think of the people they have lost the year before; to enjoy the present with family and friends, and to focus on renewal and look with hope for the future.
Maori academic and leader Sir Pou Temara, who led celebrations at the Wellington waterfront, called the official marking of Matariki as a new public holiday as "a moment that future generations will look upon and say this is when we came of age".
And in an emotional speech, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the holiday does not divide New Zealanders by Maori ancestry or other, rather "it unites us under the stars of Aotearoa".
In Maori culture, Matariki is both the name of the Pleiades star cluster – long a guiding light for expert Maori navigators - and of the celebration of its first rising, usually around the time of the winter solstice. The constellation can be seen from New Zealand for 11 months of the year, but disappears for a month in winter, and it is this reappearance that signals the start of the Maori new year.
Ardern and Sir Pou Temara joined hundreds at a pre-dawn ceremony outside the Te Papa cultural museum in the capital Wellington on Friday to mark Matariki with a traditional hautapu ceremony. Here offerings of food were made, steam rising from braziers to feed the nine stars of the Matariki cluster. Each star represents various ways in which we are tied to the natural environment. One governs the spirits of the dead; another sea life, another rainwater. And it's said ancestors relied on the brightness of these various stars in the cluster to determine where to find the best seafood, to avoid strong currents, or to be warned of an upcoming dry season.
"It feels incredibly symbolic to me, that stars that have been so integral in navigation by our ancestors, form now a waypoint on our journey as a nation. This waypoint in our journey offers us the chance to come together as families, but also as a nation, under the stars of a bright, optimistic, and hopeful Matariki," Ardern said.
Even for an outsider, the sentiments were incredibly moving. Could this holiday help not only boost reconciliation but also hold the environment up as a new and many would argue overdue guiding light in modern societies?
Unusually for a long weekend holiday, the designated "day off" for Matariki is a Friday rather than the traditional Monday, and there was much media debate and some confusion in the lead-up as to how people should celebrate this rare beast that is new leisure time and whether shops and businesses should open.
Talkback discussion weighed up the pros and cons. Some thought there were too many public holidays; others felt shops should close so workers could spend time with family, the value of this hitting home after so much suffering with COVID. There were calls to outlaw any commercialisation of the holiday by linking it to mid-year sales or parties. There also appeared to be genuine excitement that this was to be an intrinsically Aotearoa holiday, linked deeply to its people and their environment. To honour this, people were urged to come up with new family traditions to carry into the future.
There was some disquiet over the use of fireworks to mark the occasion, some saying it was "more Guy Fawkes" than Matariki, pointing out that the ensuing smoke haze would obscure the very key to the celebrations and was in direct opposition to Matariki's environmental message and so would need to change in the future.
But others were more forgiving. One Maori tour guide told me he was deeply moved by the huge crowds who turned out at the icy Wellington waterfront on the Friday night to enjoy music, light projections and, yes, those fireworks.
"It's winter so they could see the stars before the fireworks," he smiled. "It was a happy time for all of us to come together."
One thing is certain as the smoke clears: it's no biggie. This new holiday has been warmly embraced. This, after all, is New Zealand, the first country to give women the vote. If any one nation can work this out, it can.
Jane Richards travelled to New Zealand as a guest of WellingtonNZ.