Festivals are a rich element of Waldorf Education celebrated throughout the school year. But how many times have we wondered what is Michaelmas? Why celebrate the harvest with Michael slaying the dragon? Where does the lantern festival in November come from? Why create the Advent or Winter Spiral of Light, observe the feast day of Santa Lucia, and put on the Shepherd’s Play?
We believe that the earth is alive and needs our support, and that we can nurture and care for her through the awareness that is cultivated in our joy-filled celebrations.
In modern times, people have separated themselves from nature’s rhythms by building houses with strong walls and central heating, by driving cars to and fro, and by hardly ever having to get wet or cold. Have we overcome nature? The truth is that nature’s seasonal cycles have a tremendous impact on our feelings and emotions.
Festivals have their source in the ancient spiritual wisdom of humans in relation to nature. Over the course of history, festivals have become matters of tradition and habit, sometimes only sentimental and often taken over by economic interest. But when understood and thoughtfully celebrated, the festivals can become a source of healing for the individual and society, a harmonizing community-building power. The festivals can help us tune ourselves again to the breath and pulse of the cosmos. If we allow ourselves to participate in the festivals in a meaningful way, they speak to us of our relationship to a greater reality.
In our school, festivals are celebrated in different ways as the children mature. Some festivals are reserved for the younger students, while others are shared by all. Below is a presentation of the winter festivals as currently experienced on the by Meadowbrook and Kinderhaus students (kindergarten through grade 8).
Michaelmas comes at a time of year when the light of the sun begins to fade and the days become increasingly darker and colder. This marks the beginning of the winter festivals. At Michaelmas, we face the dragon with swords of light and gather courage for the inward journey of winter. The dragon is used here as a symbol of our less desirable human traits, conquered through effort, diligence, and courage.
In the Waldorf school our first festival of light comes in November. In the dark night we gather with the young children to light lanterns that shine like fireflies. The night is cold and often windy! Our lights, enclosed inside a lantern, are visible symbols of our capacity to ward off the darkness of the coming winter.
In many cultures we find these light festivals. For example, in the Jewish tradition of Hanukkah candles are lit, one each night for eight nights. The Christian tradition celebrates the coming of a new birth of light and goodness at the darkest time of year in the northern hemisphere, late December. The Hindus celebrate Diwali, in which every house is ablaze with lights to rejoice in the victory of good over evil.
Our next festival of light, the Advent or Winter Spiral, comes just after Thanksgiving. Advent comes from the Latin adventus and means “coming.” It is a time of preparation and joyful anticipation as our community members prepare for Christmas, Hanukkah, or the celebration of the winter solstice. Whatever our beliefs, much of the magic of the winter season arises by cultivating an atmosphere of peaceful anticipation. The natural world seems to be asleep. All that is becoming, in preparation for the next spring and summer, is hidden from our sight. At that time we engage in a mood of hopeful longing for the eventual return of the light. The Winter Spiral or Spiral of Light, is a centering and soul satisfying experience for children and adults alike. Each child walks a spiral path made of pine boughs strewn with minerals and crystals. As they reach the center, children light their “apple candle” and, as they begin their journey outwards, place it on the path to light the way for others.
On December 6 (or the day closest to that date when it falls on a weekend) we celebrate Saint Nicholas Day. The story of the wise and generous saint captivates the imagination of the younger children. Saint Nicholas brings the warmth of giving and caring to this season of celebration. The children clean and polish their indoor shoes the day before and leave them out for the treats that Saint Nicholas brings.
During the month of December, the grade school students gather one one morning a week for an assembly to light the Advent candles. Each week we light one more candle to balance the increasing darkness outside. We hear a story, a song or a verse from the work done in the classrooms. Traditionally, the first week of Advent honors the mineral realm, the world of stone and earth, while the second and third weeks bring the plant and animal realms to our awareness. Human beings are honored on the fourth week.
Further celebrating the birth of new light, a new season, new life, we welcome Santa Lucia on or near her feast day, December 13. She was said to have brought food to the hungry people in Sweden during a time of famine. She was dressed in white and a luminous halo crowned her head. Santa Lucia is known as the “Queen of Light” and is to this day widely celebrated in every village and town of Sweden. The high school and grades students bring this to every class, in a procession accompanied with song and freshly baked buns.
Hanukkah, another festival of light, is observed for eight days near the time of the winter solstice in memory of a miracle that occurred in Palestine over 2100 years ago. The festival acknowledges the need to rekindle the winter sun and light. We light a candle for every day of Hanukkah to celebrate the light. For those who celebrate Hanukkah at home, candles are lit each evening symbolizing the eight days that oil burned in the temple.
Christmas is also a celebration of light. The Christmas image is one of a birth surrounded by love. Christ’s birth, “the light of the world” in the Christian tradition, is celebrated just after the winter solstice as the light of earth is returning. His birth is a symbol of the birth of the sun at the darkest time of year. The faculty performs the Shepherd’s Play for the students and the community, and all experience a reverence for the birth of new life and light through a humorous and joyful play.
The festival of Epiphany on January 6 marks the end of the Christian holiday season, known also as Twelfth Night. During the twelve nights, nature is dormant and quiet, and it seems as if nothing moves.
As the sun begins to reawaken the life of the earth, so too the sun rouses our spirit! February 2 is Candlemas, a festival in which we gather the remains of the candles used in our winter festivals and melt these all together. It is a time when we look back and remember to honor this season in ways that can be truly meaningful and rejuvenating for our individual lives and for the life of our whole world. This day is also called Saint Bride Day, or Groundhog Day, as we celebrate the rising of the sap in the plant world. Nature awakens!
By celebrating the festivals, we awaken interest and love for the cosmic intelligence that lives within the beating heart of the natural world we call home.
Wim Gottenbos, grade 8 teacher
Edited by Kate Golden, grade 4 teacher