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Renewing the Festivals

At this time of year, Waldorf communities everywhere are preparing celebrations of the seasonal festivals. In the Northern Hemisphere, many of us associate November and December with cold, with snow, with falling leaves, and with the dormancy and inner quiet of winter. But how is this celebrated in Waldorf communities literally on the other side of the world where ‘our’ midwinter is ‘their’ high summer?

One of our second-year students, Meg Quinlisk who lives in Australia, recently shared her perspective in our handwork teacher training program. She focuses on the ‘breathing’ of the year and of our planet, and the universal inner virtues as counterparts to the multi-faceted traditional festival celebrations. Thank you, Meg!

There is no denying it - we all live on a planet. No matter where we are born on this planet, what language we speak, what our beliefs are - we were all born on this planet, we all need food to stay alive, and at some point, we probably will all die on this planet. Our planet is one of several in our solar system. Our planet rotates about its own axis while journeying around the sun. The axis is a little tilted and its path through space is an elongated oval. Since the time of Copernicus, humans have become so intimate with these truths about our planet’s home in the cosmos that we hardly can remember a time when we didn’t know them, and sometimes it’s easy to forget them.

It is these physical realities of our planet’s relationship to the sun which give us the seasons. Wherever we are on our planet, there are things happening in nature which are expressions of this. Even at the equator, where the temperatures don’t vary much throughout the year, there are subtle seasonal expressions, like certain plants fruiting at particular times. If we have spent time observing nature in our local area, we can rely on these seasonal indicators to emerge, year after year. Since ancient times people all over the earth have observed these changes and established ways to track them over the course of the year. To ancient humans, being able to anticipate seasonal changes means access to food, whether it’s hunted, gathered, or grown.

As we travel on our planet’s oval path around the sun (a journey of a year), there are two noteworthy times when we reach a solstice - moments when our planet is at its furthest from the sun. The midway points between these two extremes are the equinoxes. If we look at the dates of these events (roughly the 20th/21st of June and December, and 20th/21st of March and September) we might notice that they fall roughly in line with holidays in several major religions. A direct line can be drawn from the ancient stone monuments built 10,000 years ago to some of the major holidays we observe in society today. Some of these celebrations have become the festivals celebrated in Steiner/Waldorf schools the world over.

Rudolf Steiner proposed an additional lens for understanding the Earth and its annual travels around the sun. This is a picture of the earth as a living organism, whose breathing process is aligned with the planet’s journey around the sun, and thus is expressed in the seasons. Because of the tilt in our planet’s axis, the northern and southern hemispheres experience the opposite of one another’s seasons, so this planetary breathing is in balance. As a breathing in occurs on one side of the planet, a breathing out happens on the other. The solstices represent the time when the breathing in or out reaches its deepest point, and turns to breathing out or in. The equinoxes represent the mid-point of the breath, whether it’s inhaled or exhaled. Steiner also described a spiritual dimension to the cosmos and identified the spiritual influences working upon the earth at different points in the year.

No matter where we are on the planet, we can notice in ourselves what breathing feels like. Breathing in feels different from breathing out. Being halfway between an inhalation and an exhalation feels different from the opposite. When we are tuned in to the seasonal happenings around us, we can also notice the feeling, or the mood, of each season, both at its height and as it transforms into the next. When we connect this to our human life, we can observe how the course of the year, from spring to winter, reflects the span of a human biography from childhood to maturity and fruiting, and on to withering and senescence. For example, regardless of whether or not your local area receives snowfall, winter brings the gesture of inwardness, stillness, and hibernation. Our life draws in, we keep our core warm and alive through a long night. Like seeds germinating, we sense the renewal of warmth brought by the growing sunlight of spring, and begin to send our tendrils out to flower. The full light of summer tempts us into a looser, more relaxed, carefree, and outward looking lifestyle, while the turning of the year to autumn brings us to focus again on our work, the harvest, and to make preparations for the next hibernation. These feelings and archetypes relate to the spiritual forces at work in the earth through the year which Steiner described and can be understood in their essence as love (winter), healing (spring), morality (summer), and courage (autumn).

There is a widespread call for the renewal of the Waldorf school’s festival life, to open up to be more responsive to the more diverse communities who compose our schools. Many schools are now incorporating elements of non-Western, non-Christian practices in their festival planning. Rather than diversifying the details, I suggest that we should create renewal by looking more to what is universally human. A festival should aim to connect individuals to their shared humanity, and to connect humanity to the cosmos or to the spiritual world. To make a truly universal festival experience, we must first make the connection between where our planet is in its yearly cycle and what that looks like in the natural world, in our local area. We can then consider what this time means in an archetypal human lifespan, and bring something of this to be expressed through our festival. This will become the guiding light for a festival full of diverse expressions of the universally human.

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