The calendar at Wynstones, like all Steiner Waldorf schools, marks many festive occasions throughout the school year. At the cardinal points of the year are the main Christian festivals. Other religious festivals are observed too, of course, which helps to deepen the children's experience of other peoples and cultures as they progress through the school Here, however, we shall concentrate on the festivals that are celebrated either by the whole school or by a large part of it.
Why are festivals so important?
This is a question often asked by parents and visitors to the school.
First of all, the festivals address the basic human need for rhythm and repetition. They form the heartbeat of school life. Each festival has its place in the cycle of the year and can be looked forward to and looked back on as well as being experienced at the time.
They give children an orientation in time, in a society where many of the natural rhythms of life have virtually disappeared. Secondly, we aim to cultivate feelings of reverence and wonder in our children and celebrating the festivals especially encourage these feelings. Moreover, it helps the children to develop essential human qualities such as patience - learning to wait, and the ability to look after things, by using the same objects and beautiful decorations year in, year out, as well as giving them sense impressions that nurture the soul.
Which festivals do we celebrate?
The festivals appear in our calendar in the following chronological order:
MICHAELMAS, the festival of St Michael - 29th September
The archangel Michael is traditionally depicted controlling a dragon at his feet, or holding a pair of scales. We are called upon to wake up to the negative forces within us and to work on them and to control them, in order to achieve the right balance within ourselves. Here we mark the time of year in the northern hemisphere when nature loses its vitality and goes to sleep; human beings, by contrast, need to wake up.
It is a time for initiative and directed impulses for the future. In the morning the Lower and Upper Schools assemble in the New Hall for some recitation, a presentation and Michaelmas songs. Each class then goes out into the grounds with a specific task, for example, clearing up, building, planting bulbs or cooking the shared Michaelmas lunch. In the Early Years Michaelmas has more of the quality of a harvest festival.
MARTINMAS - 11th November
St Martin or Tours was a Roman soldier who famously tore his cloak in half to give it to a beggar. This story is remembered in the younger classes and a play is performed by Classes I and II. The festival is also celebrated by making lanterns and going on a lantern procession after dark. The children and adults together sing songs to all that nature has brought us.
ADVENT FAIR - almost always the Saturday before the beginning of Advent
Although this is a very important day in our school calendar, it is not a festival as such, but a wonderful day when parents, teachers and pupils all help to transform the school with decorations and stall. There are festive refreshments, music and the opening carols when the Fair is officially opened and these mark the moment when the preparations are over and Advent begins.
ADVENT - the four weeks (including four Sundays) that lead up to Christmas
Christmas is, of course, celebrated during the holidays, but the time leading up to it is magical for children. It is a time full of anticipation and excitement, not just about receiving but also about giving. All classrooms turn into hives of activity, filled with craft work, the making of cards and decorations and sometimes with the aroma of baking.
THE ADVENT SPIRAL
In the days following the Christmas Fair the greenery is formed into a spiral in preparation for the Advent Spiral. The children in the Lower School, Class I helped by their Upper School buddies, walk into the spiral to light a candle, and create a spiral of light. This is accompanied by music and is a very magical time as each tiny point of light is placed and slowly the darkness recedes. The room glows with candlelight and there is a peaceful feeling of shared purpose.
ST NICHOLAS - 6th December
The precursor of our modern Santa Claus was, in fact, a third century bishop of a place called Myra, in what is now Turkey. He was renowned for his love of children and became an important figure all over Europe from the fifteenth century onwards. Children left their shoes out, often filled with some food for Nicholas' horse, only to find them filled with sweetmeats the following morning.
St Nicholas leaves a scroll for the class teachers to read, where he gently and tactfully points out the strengths and weaknesses within the class, and brings a bag of clementines and biscuits for the children.
THE CHRISTMAS PLAYS
Just before the end of term the teachers and staff traditionally present the Shepherds' Play, sometimes preceded by the Paradise Play, to the pupils. This happens during school time and in the evening they give another performance for parents and friends. These mediaeval mystery plays from the island of Oberufer in the Danube, were discovered by Rudolf Steiner to be virtually unaltered since they were first performed in the Middle Ages and were subsequently translated into English and other languages. They are performed in Steiner schools throughout the world. We tend to perform these plays rather than the English mystery plays because of the beautiful simplicity of both the language and the images, making them ideal for presenting to young children.
EPIPHANY - 6th January
We usually begin the Spring Term on or very near this day, which marks the arrival of the three wise men (or kings) into the presence of the Christ child. This date also marks the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. The Lower and Upper Schools assemble to celebrate this festival. The Kings' Play, the third in the Oberufer cycle (see above) is usually performed, to Class V and above, during school time, and parents and friends are again warmly invited to attend the second performance in the evening.
CANDLEMAS - 2nd February
This festival is celebrated by the whole school in the New Hall with songs and words to explain the festival and with candles placed in he shape of a star. Originally a Celtic festival to mark the midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, the church later chose this time to renew and bless all its candles, hence the name Candlemas. At Wynstones, children often make an 'earth' candle, made up from collected and melted candle stubs poured into a hole dug in a special spot in the grounds. As we did with the lanterns at Martinmas, with the earth candle we recognise the elemental world hard at work behind the scenes in nature. It also marks the very first inklings of spring.
SHROVE TUESDAY or Pancake Day - the last day before Lent
The day is sometimes marked in the Lower School with pancakes being made for lunches and even pancake races in the afternoon.
LENT - the six weeks before Easter, starting on Ash Wednesday
This is the time of year when we remember Christ's sojourn of forty days in the wilderness and His temptation by the devil. It is a time when older pupils and adults may wish to give up a favourite food or bad habit, a time to test one's resilience in dealing with temptation.
EASTER - determined by the phase of the moon at the Spring Equinox
Like Christmas, Easter takes place during the holidays. The time leading up to Easter is, nevertheless, a time of prepration, making decorations, painting eggs etc. Spring is in the air as nature around us begins to reawaken. It is a time of death, resurrection and transformation, which each class celebrates in age-appropriate ways.
We have a closing festival at the end of the Spring Term in the Barn which anticipates the coming Easter festival. The Easter Tree awaits the eggs which will be hung by Class I and wheat is sown around its roots.
The opening festival of the Summer Term sees the decorated eggs hung and the green blades growing around the tree. We sing our familiar spring songs and Easter egg hunts may follow in the Lower School.
ASCENSION - forty days after the resurrection of Christ on Easter Day
Forty days after the resurrection of Christ, the church celebrates His ascension to heaven. Some teachers may take their classes up Robinswood Hill to observe the clouds and enjoy the fresh high air.
WHITSUN - fifty days after Easter
This is also known as Pentecost. The Holy Spirit descended to Christ's disciples on this day in the form of tongues of fire. Filled with this inner fire, they were enabled to go out and preach the message of Christ in any number of tongues and be understood. The Lower and Upper Schools assemble in the New Hall and often there is a reading from the relevant passage in the Bible (Acts II, verses 1-12). The opening line of St John are heard in as many different languages as the school can muster. A story may be told with communication and the sharing of understanding as its theme. Whitsun songs resound as Class I brings white doves which represent the Holy Spirit to hand on branches of white flowers.
MIDSUMMER FESTIVAL - on or near St John's tide, 24th June
This festival very much involves parents, friends and old scholars, as well as the entire school. In many countries there is a tradition of jumping over fire at St John's. The fire represents the height of the summer sun and jumping over it or through it is a ritual of purification of the soul. Class XII light the fire and Class VIII are invited to walk into the fire spiral with them, and as they emerge they have transformed into members of the Upper School.
Other events at this festival include a Lower School Pageant, side shows, exhibitions of work, strawberries and cream, teas and an alumni supper, and often a concert or play. It is a time for class reunions and get-togethers. The prevailing mood is an outward one, looking forward to the breathing out of the summer ahead.
We are lucky in this country that our seasons are so varied. As you can see from the above, the celebrations almost always contain a seasonal element, which may reflect hold festivals that predate the Christian ones.
Pupils are often asked to wear clothing of a particular colour on the day of these seasonal festivals.
Are parents allowed to take part in festivals?
The large school assemblies in the Barn make the inclusion of parents difficult due to lack of space, but often parents are warmly invited to celebrations in the New Hall.
Twice a term parents are invited to a sharing of work of the Lower School classes. Upper School parent festivals occur less frequently as they have to fit around more trips and the exam timetable. These festivals are rather different from the seasonal festivals described so far, these are a sharing of current work that is being done in the classroom.
Not all classes take part in these every time, but usually there is a demonstration of work from a wide age range - recitation, singing, music-making, drama, eurythmy, gymnastics and foreign language plays or games. They present a wonderful opportunity for pupils and parents to see what lies ahead in the curriculum and also to look back and remember work from previous years.
On these festival days the pupils are asked to wear formal 'Festival dress' which is white shirt and black trousers for boys and white blouse and black skirt or trousers for girls.
In addition to these whole school festivals, individual classes may celebrate festivals that relate to their particular study, for instance Diwali may be celebrated by a class as part of a Main Lesson.
Birthdays are celebrated in the classroom in an age-appropriate way. In the Lower School there might be a crown and a candle for the birthday child, and the pupil brings a cake for the whole class to share (this may go on right into the Upper School).
Many class teachers give the child a special birthday verse, which they learn off by heart and recite on a weekly basis. The birthday verse is written to address and help an area of development in the child.
In the Early Years and throughout most of the Lower School, the teacher has a table in the room which reflects the season of the year and festival that is being celebrated at any particular time. The table is usually decorated with appropriately coloured cloths, a vase with flowers or other seasonal treasures, a seasonal picture, a candle and small puppets such as figures for the crib scene, flower children, gnomes, etc.
Children sometimes bring 'treasures' to school which they have found on walks, which are then given a place on the nature table for a little while. The nature table is much loved, especially by the younger children and it is treated with a certain reverence.
How can the festivals be celebrated at home?
This question is frequently asked by parents. The more that what we do in school is reinforced in the child's home, the better it is for the child. Receiving the same messages from home and from school is very strengthening and bring an enormous sense of security.