Written by Jennifer S on August 15th, 2011
(Edited for the southern hemisphere experience)
“Celebrating festivals can bring us consciously to what we all experience instinctively in our daily lives, the changing cycles of the seasons and of life itself. Through various festivals and rituals we acknowledge and celebrate our connection to and our responsibility toward each other and the world.”
Waldorf education epitomizes the concept of natural learning. It views human beings and the natural world as interwoven expressions of spiritual realities, culturing respect and responsibility for the earth, which provides sustenance for us all. The Waldorf philosophy integrates the natural world through everything from outdoor play, to gardening, to bread making, to toy making, to nature stories and of course through the natural toys Waldorf is known for. An often overlooked part of Waldorf’s connection to natural learning is through their celebration of the seasons and seasonal festivals.
The celebration of festivals is an important part of Waldorf education. A festival is a joyous celebration of life, and has the quality of lifting us out of the ordinary and into the mysteries and magic of the rhythm of the seasons. Throughout history, festivals have emerged from people’s connection with their spiritual life and their search for the meaning of human existence. The celebrations are interwoven with the life of the earth and the cycles of nature.
Many faith-based traditions recognize the spiritual realities behind different passages during the year, and that is why special observances cluster together on the calendar. In the Waldorf tradition, festivals are meant to reflect the spiritual reality of what is happening to the earth during important passages during the year.
For example, we can experience the autumn in a natural way as we watch the colorful changing of the leaves, feel the crispness in the air, and taste the tartness of a newly picked apple. We can experience it also, in a spiritual way, if we begin to perceive the beauty around us. The awe of a special sunset can quicken a sense of reverence, stir us to voice a few poetic lines, or feel an inner peace. A common experience of joy and reverence is what allows a festival at a particular time of year to unite a whole community.
Sharifa Oppenheimer, author of Heaven on Earth: A Handbook for Parents of Young Children, says this about festivals: “In earlier times, children were raised within the agricultural calendar. In this way they had the opportunity to live within, and to know in their bodies, long chains of sequences. They knew the steps in a process, and learned the lesson to persist until the goal was attained. From planting a seed and persisting through till harvest, or caring for a new lamb, through shearing, carding, spinning & weaving, these children had an inborn sense of sequencing. In our technological lives which are fractured by phones ringing, screens flashing, and a thousand distractions, it can be difficult for children to have a sense of the long rhythms of life, and the step by step sequences these rhythms involve. To celebrate seasonal Festivals gives our children an opportunity to live these long rhythms, the rhythms of the earth and sun. These children will begin to know the long, slow sequences of their own human lives.”
Singing, dancing, stories, food and sharing are all a part of the festivals of the year. The four main seasonal festivals celebrated in the Waldorf tradition are Easter (autumn), St. John’s Festival (winter), Michaelmas (spring), and Christmas/Advent Spiral (summer).
Afterword pic of fire
St John’s Festival at Michael Mount
As winter comes, bringing darkness and cold, we must cultivate inner light and warmth. The festival of John the Baptist celebrates the fire of the spirit within the human mind and heart. In his sermons John repeatedly called for a change in thinking and counseled the people to “prepare the way of the Lord”. St. John’s festival reminds us to be inwardly alive and awake in preparation for the new growth to come. The flame of St. John gives us the warmth and courage to follow our chosen paths.
For this festival the children make lanterns. And each year we marvel at the different designs. A great fire is lit. When the flames have died down we jump over the ashes to signify leaving behind past troubles. Later we share hot, nourishing bowls of soup and fresh bread rolls.