1. An Outline
The nine festivals celebrated in our school each year are special times when all of us – children, teachers and the whole school community – can reconnect with the spiritual rhythm of the year and with each other.
We mark the festivals with special decorations, food, songs and stories, and the children are always involved in the preparations. Some of the festivals are held out of doors, often in the local woods. As the children go through their years in Kindergarten, they begin to remember and look forward to the festivals and to rejoice in the recurring pattern.
Our festivals have for the most part grown out of the Christian tradition. However, we celebrate them in a nature-based rather than a religious way, and seek to bring out in each one the symbols and images that speak to our common humanity. We are conscious that it is up to each of us to bring something of ourself to the festival.
Each changing season enfolds an idea that has meaning for human lives. In celebrating the festivals, we endeavour to bring the mood and purpose of the season into an imaginative picture. These images are treasure-houses of truth. The more we quietly contemplate them, the more they reveal their meaning to us.
2. Michaelmas - 29th September
The school year begins with Michaelmas. The Archangel Michael is of particular significance for our time, inspiring humanity to recognise the reality of the spiritual and bringing us courage for our human deeds. Many pictures show Michael fighting and taming a dragon. He is our helper, who encourages us in our struggle against evil.
Michaelmas falls at a turning-point in the natural world, when day and night are equally balanced. As summer ends and autumn begins, life in nature withdraws and fades after a last burst of brilliant colour. As we face this apparent ‘dying away’, it is important for us to gather our inner resources of clear thinking, courage and the will. It is a good time for taking on new tasks, for initiative, hard work and the will to do good.
In Playgroup and Kindergarten, the rooms are decorated with orange and purple cloths and flowers, representing the natural and the spiritual, and with berries and leaves. We celebrate by making and eating ‘dragon-bread’ and soup together – a good way for young children to experience ‘taming the dragon’! The Kindergarten children sing songs celebrating Michael’s subduing of the dragon. We also plant bulbs in the garden in order to experience how our hard work now will come to flower in the spring. Celebrating Michaelmas gives us courage for life and action.
3. Martinmas - 11th November
As the days become shorter and the darkness draws in, we celebrate Martinmas with a lantern festival for the whole school community, to symbolise the shining out of our inner human light and warmth into the darkness around us.
Martin was an early Christian saint, who was said to have shared his cloak with a beggar. He became the patron saint of all outcasts, and was known for his gentleness and ability to bring warmth and light to those who were previously in darkness.
In school we prepare for Martinmas by making lanterns from paper painted in glowing colours of yellow and orange. As dusk falls on the day of the festival, we meet at the woods and walk in procession through the lantern-hung trees, each carrying a lantern and adding our own light to that of our friends, singing as we go. At the end of the walk, we are offered star- or moon-shaped biscuits, reminding us of the lights that will continue to shine in the darkness of the winter nights.
4. St. Nicholas - The Gift Bringer 6th December.
St Nicholas is known as a miracle-worker, a gift-bringer and the patron saint of children. His feast day falls in the first week of Advent, a season of contemplation, expectation and preparation for something which is coming.
In Kindergarten, the children bring in a pair of shoes to polish and leave out overnight, in the hope that St Nicholas will visit unseen and leave a little present in the shoes. The next day they find a present in their shoes and perhaps also a gift for the whole group. As a mysterious, almost magical gift-bringer, St Nicholas is related to other figures such as Father Christmas and the old gods of Norse and Roman mythology. Like them, he is portrayed as an old man, whose gifts bring hope and the promise of new birth at this darkest time of year.
5. Advent Spiral
Our last festival as a school community before Christmas is the Advent Spiral. In this very beautiful ceremony, first the teachers and then the children walk one by one to the centre of a spiral of winter evergreens, where a tall candle awaits. Each child carries a candle set into an apple, which they light from the central candle. As they solemnly walk back out of the spiral, they each find a candle holder where they place their candles. By the time all the children have made this journey, the whole spiral is glowing with little lights.
In this ceremony, with its symbolism of our encounter with the spiritual, the children experience the awe and wonder of approaching the source of light, kindling their own light from it and bringing that light back to shine alongside the others.
Afterwards, we meet in the garden for hot fruit punch and mince pies – a good way to ‘come back down to earth’! We avoid going back into the hall, so that the beauty of the spiral is not spoiled for the children. As with St Nicholas’ Day, this festival is celebrated only in the Kindergartens and not in Playgroup. In Playgroup, we enjoy a festive snack and puppet story on the last day of term together with the parents.
6. Easter – last day of the spring term
The spring equinox has passed and now the daylight begins to dominate the darkness. In celebrating new life arising from what seemed to be dead, the Christian festival of Easter is related to older celebrations of the coming of Spring. Easter derives its name from the pre-Christian goddess of rebirth, fertility and spring (Anglo-Saxon Eastre).
In Playgroup and Kindergarten, we prepare for this festival well in advance: we plant grass seeds in small pots (in Kindergarten these are made out of clay by the children), and wait and watch for the first signs of green shoots. We also make Easter baskets in sunny yellows and spring greens, and decorate eggs. On the day of the festival, the rooms are full of spring flowers and parents are invited to join us for an egg hunt in the garden. The egg is an ancient symbol of rebirth: it appears to be still and dead but in fact contains new life. The searching for the eggs is important: the gifts of Christmas are given, but the treasures of Easter must be sought. Our stories at this time often feature hares, as the hare is symbolic of self-sacrifice, linking it to both Christian and Buddhist traditions.
8. May Festival—beginning of May
As summer approaches, we feel the need to express our happiness and exuberance at the
fulfilment of spring’s promise by singing and dancing out of doors, so we head to the woods with coloured streamers to hang on the trees, ‘May crowns’ of flowers in our hair, and picnic baskets at the ready. Each class dances around the Maypole, then parents and friends are welcome to have a turn too. The weaving of the ribbons around the pole gives a sense of the pattern of life, in creating which we all play a part.
Along with the Lantern Walk and the Midsummer Festival, this is one of the joyful occasions on which the whole school community can meet together, including the Parent and Child Groups, friends and wider family.
7. Whitsun - 50 days after Easter
Whitsun (originally ‘White Sunday’), also known as Pentecost, is a time for acknowledging the presence of the divine spirit in each individual, and the freedom this gives each of us to strive consciously to understand and communicate with one another. In the Christian tradition, this was the occasion on which the Holy Spirit was sent to each of Jesus’ disciples, along with the gift of speaking in other languages, to help them spread the news of his love for all people of all nations. Rudolf Steiner wanted to create a new Whitsun festival which would emphasise the common humanity shared by us all, and this is the aspect we aim to bring out in our celebrations.
In England it was traditional to wear white on this day, perhaps to symbolise the purity of the spirit. White blossom and flowers are also all around us in nature at this time of the year. Children and teachers wear white to school for this festival and we ask parents to bring in white food to share and white flowers which will become beautiful crowns for our heads. Symbols such as the daisy flower, with its many single petals radiating out from a golden centre, and dove, with its message of peace between people, help us to show how diversity and community can not only co-exist but strengthen each other.
9. St.John’s Day - Midsummer Festival - 24th June
Just after the summer solstice, we celebrate a midsummer festival. In nature, the forces of nature are at their height and the earth is in the most ‘extrovert’ phase of the year. Likewise, there is a tendency in us as human beings to be outgoing, expansive and maybe even a little ‘out of ourselves’ at this time (“Midsummer madness”). Midsummer is a turning-point in the yearly rhythm of the natural world, after which a process of contraction begins again.
The custom of lighting fires at Midsummer is a very old one and is linked with the purifying and transformative qualities of fire. At a time when it is all too easy to drift along in the warm, long days of summer, it is good for us to be reminded of the need for inner work on ourselves. This was the message brought by St John the Baptist, who foretold Christ’s coming and urged people to ‘repent’ or think again and find a new direction for their lives. By dancing around and jumping over fires at Midsummer, our ancestors hoped to burn away evil and trouble and make a new start.
For young children, we do not make these ideas explicit, but dress in red to enjoy another day in the woods, with singing, dancing, jumping and a picnic of red food.
End of School Year Celebration
We end the school year with a social occasion when all Kindergarten families are invited to bring a dish from their own cultural tradition to share. This festive meal takes place in the garden. As part of this event, the Kindergarten children and the parents of the ‘going-up children’ (6 year olds) attend the ‘Going-up Ceremony’ indoors. After this we all meet in the garden for a multi-cultural feast! The Playgroup year finishes with a special snack and story to which all parents are invited.