The kūmara harvest was marked by the rising of the star Whānui (Vega). It was said: ‘Ka rere a Whānui, ka tīmata te hauhake’ (when Vega rises, the harvest starts).
In traditional times, life was regulated by the maramataka, the Māori year made up of lunar months that were divided into nights of the moon. The arrival of stars in the night sky, and changes observed in plants, trees and the behaviour of birds, were also reliable markers of the passing of the seasons. These tohu (signs) within the natural world gave guidance as to the proper times for planting, harvesting, fishing, hunting and other food-gathering activities.
When the crops had been harvested and stored it was said, ‘Kua uru ngā kai ki te rua; kua mutu ngā mahi a te tangata’ (crops are stored in pits; labours are over).1
An early European visitor to New Zealand, J. S. Polack, noted that ‘the harvest feast was celebrated in March when the crops had been garnered and stored.’2
Ngahuru – the 10th month
The month of the maramataka Māori (Māori calendar) associated with the harvest of the kūmara is Ngahuru, or in full Ngahuru-kai-paenga (the food threshold of the 10th month). According to Teone (Hōne) Taare Tīkao of Ngāi Tahu, Ngahuru was the longest and happiest month of the year:
Ngahuru was the harvest time when the kumera was gathered, and the Maori was happy then because there was abundance of good things to eat. The usual number of meals a day was two, but sometimes in periods of dearth the Maori only got one meal a day. He looked forward to Ngahuru, when he could get ten meals a day if he wished them, or could eat them.3
Ngā mahi a Ruhanui
In 1872 Rāpata Wahawaha, the famous Ngāti Porou soldier and leader, said, ‘In former times, when Whānui rose, the crops were gathered and stored, after which “nga mahi a Ruhanui” (the activities of Ruhanui) were practised.’4 Wahawaha went on to list ‘ngā mahi a Ruhanui’, which included the ceremony and feast to celebrate the storing of the kūmara crop, the exchanging of gifts of food between hosts and visitors, haka, poi, taonga puoro (music) and tākaro (games).
At harvest a multitude
There are a number of whakataukī (sayings) about people who are willing to participate in the harvest and associated feasting, but who are scarce when there is work to be done at other times of year. One example is ‘Kōanga tangata tahi; ngahuru puta noa’ (at planting a single person, at harvest a multitude).
New year festival
The rising of the Matariki (Pleiades) constellation in June was the signal for the beginning of the new year. In some places, where Matariki was less visible, it was the rising of Puanga (Rigel) that marked the new year. This was a time for celebration and remembering those who had died in the past year.
The appearance of Matariki ‘was marked by feasting and by what the Maori term “Nga mahi a te rehia” – the arts of pleasure, such as dancing, singing, the playing of many forms of games, and contests of many kinds.’5
A number of whakataukī reflect the fact that food stores were plentiful at this time of year, including ‘Matariki ahunga nui’ (Matariki provider of plentiful food) and ‘Ka kitea a Matariki, kua maoka te hinu’ (when Matariki is seen, then game is preserved).