One of the oft most recurring themes on the Waldorf Mail List involves the celebration of festivals in Waldorf schools. The questions range from how to celebrate the festivals to which festivals to celebrate to why a festival is or isn't included. In the American multi-cultural context, none of these questions is trivial. They can touch very tender nerves indeed, particularly when the question becomes one that voices a perception of religious exclusivity in the content of Waldorf school festivals. Most of the festivals celebrated at a Waldorf school have a religious context, specifically a seemingly traditional Christian context. Seen from the perspective of a non-Christian, Waldorf schools often appear very sectarian and out of step with mainstream American culture.
The following discussion is a proposal concerning the year-long
series of festivals to be celebrated at the Waldorf School. This
is an attempt to create a festival schedule that will combine
the most meaningful aspects of traditionally celebrated festivals
with the need to present an calendar that speaks to families and
communities coming into the Waldorf system in the United States
at the end of the twentieth century.
IntroductionAny discussion of festivals necessarily includes a discussion of religion. Waldorf schools are steeped in religion because of its founder's recognition that the spiritual dimension of the human being is critically important to the overall well-being of each individual and of society.
Along with the benefits of spiritual depth, this orientation creates certain problems. Festivals currently celebrated in the Waldorf school reflect the specific religious orientation of Rudolf Steiner and speak best to those who share Steiner's religious views. However ancient the origins of these festivals may be, their current form often links them with one specific religious orientation to the exclusion of others. America is a nation which prides itself on the secularism of nondenominational institutions. When American Waldorf schools embrace people who do not share their religious viewpoint, certain problems may arise. People who practice religions other than Christianity can choose either to embrace Waldorf/Christian observances, or to hold fast to their own religious paths at the cost of being outside many of the key manifestations of spirituality during the school year.
Talking about religion brings up strong feelings. It creates controversy because religious feelings are deeply held. Those who practice a particular religion have some sort of bias toward believing that their belief and practice is superior to others by a meager or great margin. This is normal.
Majority/minority situations compound the problem because members of a majority creed tend to assume that their way is standard, the way everybody thinks. Unless provoked, they simply do not feel the need to examine or reevaluate their own bias and underlying assumptions. When American Waldorf schools tended to attract a more homogeneous group of families, there was little need to reconsider the sectarian bias of spiritual/religious content. Those in the school were mostly predisposed to accept it.
That has changed over the past decade or two. The great merits of Waldorf schools are drawing more and more people from non-northern European and non-Christian backgrounds. Today's Waldorf schools have greater ethnic and religious diversity than ever before. This trend is sure to continue.
The purpose of this paper is to consider the festival year in this light. I have been discussing these issues for months with many people within the greater Waldorf community: some in person, many over the Internet. Some are anthroposophists or long-time members of Waldorf communities, others are relative newcomers. All have a place in the greater world of Waldorf education. Many have devoted considerable time and effort to comprehending the underpinnings of Waldorf schools and making them work in their own lives. I am grateful for the input of dozens of individuals from across the country.
I come from a different background and adhere to a different belief system than most of the central core of the American Waldorf world. I am non-Christian and perfectly content to stay that way. I hope even those of you who come from an orthodox Waldorf background will consider this different perspective, comprehend its merits, and offer appropriate solutions that encompass these very real concerns.
Then and NowI have been saying for some time that the biggest problem with Waldorf education is that Steiner is dead. All we have to go on is what he said, wrote, and taught. Although that is a considerable body of wisdom, it must be seen in terms of its own place and time.
So often one hears Steiner quoted as the ultimate authority on some issue that arises in a Waldorf school. But that was Steiner then. I wonder what he would say if he were forming a school in 1996 Manhattan instead of 1919 Stuttgart. How might he discuss the social ills of our time? More important, what kind of education might he create to serve today's children in this heterogeneous, multicultural country? What might he say or do differently, in order to serve our modern community?
Would he keep the narrow source of religious festivals currently practiced in Waldorf schools, or would he expand the field to encompass festivals from other religions and cultures? Might he simply establish principles and leave the choice of festivals appropriate to their community up to the individual schools?
External forms have changed dramatically in the past eighty years, even though inner human nature may have remained constant. The philosophy of developmentally - appropriate education has withstood the test of time. But the choice of models, norms and standards is much broader. This must be reconciled with the models, norms, and standards traditionally used in Waldorf education.
Those who carry the flame of Waldorf education are charged with keeping that flame burning brightly, of feeding it new fuel while protecting it from storms. It is a tough task, constantly reevaluating and adapting, moving quickly enough to stay engaged with the way people really live, slowly enough to retain the preciousness of what has been.
All of us who value Waldorf education want to see it remain vital and alive. Thus, the task at hand.
PrinciplesCertain principles underlie this discussion and the suggestions that follow:
Three choicesWaldorf schools were born out of a comprehensive worldview aligned with a particular religious viewpoint. In the original Waldorf School in Stuttgart, that overall religious bias was tempered by individual religion classes taught by appropriate clergy or officials as part of the curriculum. That simply does not happen today in this country. Therefore, Waldorf schools must develop a formula for presenting the spiritual underpinnings in a way that works broadly. Three choices emerge:
My Own ExperienceI have as Jewish a name as there is. We attended at least three introductory events plus a few public social events before sending our daughters. Not a word about drawing on a specific religious tradition was ever mentioned. Once in the school, I was stunned to find out the degree to which Christianity is a part of Waldorf education. Even today I am uncomfortable about my daughter's upcoming second grade introduction to heroic characteristics through the limited personae of the Catholic saints. Through conversations on the Waldorf Internet discussion group, I have met other Jewish parents around the country who found themselves in the same situation: aghast and feeling terribly misled. This is not an exaggeration. I have also met Christian-raised Waldorf parents who are equally uncomfortable with the presence of religious content in their children's schooling.
I cannot fathom why this has happened. Can the faculties of these schools be so naive, or is it a kind of blind spot? Other Jewish families at our school had expressed concern about this issue in earlier years, so it was not simply an oversight. Yet no one saw fit to bring it up to someone named Cohen.
The Broader ExperienceThe problem applies not only to Jewish families. One Internet correspondent in Cincinnati (her last name was not an obviously Jewish one) wrote: "I have just begun my exposure to WE. However, I have sensed this dynamic of exclusivity, and it concerns me too. It doesn't concern me that it happens as much as that they won't/can't deal with it. I can deal with subtle Christianity, but I can't deal with denial."
Clearly there is a problem here. Part of it stems from the limited view of a majority culture, where members find it easy to assume that their perceptions and values are universal simply because most of the people they know think the same way. That way of thinking may be acceptable in some countries, but not in America. There is no primary or official religion here. Therefore, there can be no "other" religions.
Time and again people have tried to explain away to me the sectarian basis of festivals as they are practiced in Waldorf. An Internet correspondent from New York State wrote: "The real significance of the festivals is seasonal. The silly names like Michaelmas are not important." Many anthroposophists might take issue with her statement. But if you want to simply mark the seasons, there is a better way. Please see description of "Seasonfests" at the end of the festival list below.
One more frequent response I have heard, in person and over the Internet, to concerns about the relentless subtext of Christianity in my children's education is that these are really all pagan festivals, not Christian at all. Perhaps from within the Christian perspective. Certainly not from mine. Christmas trees may have originated elsewhere, but practically, they are a symbol of a modern Christian holiday. Every other festival in Waldorf is linked to seasonal change through Christianity as well. So to all of us non-Christians, seasonal holidays in Christian form are Christian, not pagan.
If nothing else comes out of this discussion, I hope Waldorf schools will become more responsible about discussing the role of religion, specifically Steiner's version of Christianity, with prospective families who have a right to know.
My ChoiceOf the three choices, I favor #2, to broaden the festival calendar and make it more universal, while keeping in mind the principles mentioned above.
The next section is a proposed festival calendar designed to include the best of whatever traditions I could find. I confess to a certain limited knowledge in this regard. In all my research and questions, there were some festivals I simply could not understand well enough to determine if they merited inclusion. A weakness of my list is that it is based entirely on American, Christian, and Jewish traditions. I did not research other possibilities. If another school has a significant representation of other ethnic groups, (the Honolulu school celebrates festivities related to its Polynesian students), it would naturally have to decide what of those traditions belongs in the school festival year.
Proposed Festival CalendarThis festival calendar embodies the honoring of seasonal change, reverence for that which is beyond our direct understanding, respect for Nature and natural passages of the human spirit. It departs from the traditional Waldorf festival calendar in that it specifically plays down the sectarian nature of festivals and their sources in favor of universal themes. It also plays up American cultural holidays that are an integral part of the social context of schools in this country.
First day of school.
The first day of the school year that I have seen is marked with an assembly, with teachers talking about the coming year. But I think it should really be seen as a festival of continuity: that which has been begins again. (This is the spirit in which Orthodox Jews celebrate Simchat Torah, the day the Torah scroll is finished and immediately rewound and begun again. For them it is the most joyous day of the year.)
A Jewish tradition that marks the Jewish Year (Rosh Hashanah, which falls at about this time) would be a wonderful ritual for the first day of school. A piece of apple dipped in honey symbolizes the wish that the fruit of the coming year be sweet (or the year be both fruitful and sweet.) It is a formal ritual that everyone enjoys which could elevate the first day of school from an assembly to a celebration of continuity.
Of all the Jewish holidays, this seems the most appropriate to include in the Waldorf year. It is a harvest and pilgrimage festival, with little specifically Jewish religious content, that takes place usually in late September. A Sukkah, a temporary building covered with plant materials, is built outdoors. It must be closed on 3 sides with a roof of branches, loosely structured so that the stars can be seen through it at night. The Sukkah (Hebrew for "booth") was where the farmers lived during the harvest, so they could be close to their labor during this busy time. Its structure is intentionally flimsy since it lasts only a week. Branches cover the walls and roof, and fruit or other plant material are hung from the walls. People gather in the Sukkah to share meals and to relax.
This holiday is a vivid marker of the change of seasons. It is also tactile, beautiful, colorful, and made of natural materials. Everyone can participate, from the littlest children hanging fruit, the 3rd graders who study construction methods, and the older children who can apply their creativity and use it as a kind of club house. It meets all the criteria of a Waldorf festival, and then some.
Halloween might seem like a lightweight holiday for Waldorf. Costumes and scary critters are not the usual Waldorf fare. But Halloween has other merits, and its timing gives it added spiritual importance.
Halloween marks the very end of the season of growth in northern climates (this might be less of a factor in warmer places.) The leering jack-o-lanterns and frightening costumes suggest a dramatic break between the opulence of summer and the constriction of winter. It is a high-energy festivity. (A religious parallel is the rich Carnival or Mardi Gras festival preceding the abstention of Lent.)
Perhaps even more significant in the modern world, Halloween coincides with the end of daylight savings time. Suddenly, it is dark by dinnertime. The early darkness has a profound emotional effect as the foreboding of winter descends most markedly.
A few Internet correspondents have suggested that Michaelmas is supposed to symbolize this inward-turning transition. But here in Massachusetts, at least, late September is often still a time of beautiful weather, and the shortening days happen only gradually. Halloween marks the change most dramatically. Afterwards, the children have a bag of sweets to soften the transition from the warm, open half of the year to the cold, closed half.
Thanksgiving and Independence Day are the most American of holidays. The seasonal change is complete, and December lurks around the corner. We celebrate with food and end-of-the-fall rituals, such as the sports seasons. Cornstalks and colorful leaves are only the dried remains of the green growth of earlier months.
Thanksgiving also provides a sense of place, since it marks the permanence of Europeans settling in this country. We can recall the first Thanksgiving shared with the Indians in the 1600's. It gives us a sense of belonging and unity with the land we inhabit.
Winter Garden of Light
What has been known as the Advent Garden, the ceremony with candles, is a relatively new tradition, given the name of Advent simply because it coincides with (rather than has a meaningful connection with) the early stages of the Christmas religious season. The ceremony itself is beautiful. And it reflects a common need for illumination at the dark time of the year. Chanukah, a relatively minor Jewish holiday save that it coincides with Christmas, is also a festival of light. Light to abide the darkness is a deep-rooted theme of the season. Calling it the Winter Garden of Light universalizes this ritual by removing a religious denotation that added little but cost the inclusion of all the families. A simple name change preserves this lovely festival.
Christmas is a huge phenomenon, and the most specifically Christian religious event of the year. No one can avoid it. (Believe me, I have tried.) It is all around us, mostly in ways that are inconsistent with what Waldorf tradition suggests Christmas should really be about. Christmas in the general culture is overwhelmingly commercial and sentimental. Gift-giving pressure is tremendous. People run and scurry to get ready for it. The lonely among us feel especially left out. When religious issues are raised, they rarely have anything to do with the Christ impulse as it is seen in Waldorf.
I suggest privatizing Christmas. That is, make it less of a general school event and more a function of each individual family. Surely, it is well-enough spoken for at home by the families who celebrate it. It means a great deal to many people and virtually nothing to some of us. (That may be hard for some people to believe, but it is true. Many folks with whom I have had this discussion are incredulous that Christmas could carry no meaning for non-Christians except as the thankful end of the December commercial season. I shrug and say, "That's why God made Jews-to have somebody available to work on Christmas.")
I think the school and the students would benefit more from teachers talking about Christmas in terms of what it means to them than it terms of what it means in any larger sense.
This is a little difficult since school does not resume until at least several days after the year begins. It should be a festival of renewal in the dark of winter. If the apples and honey idea doesn't work at the beginning of the school year, it could be inserted for New Year's. Or a calendar burning, or some symbolic deed to shed the trappings of the old year in favor of those of the new one. It is not seasonal, but it is cultural and recognized as a transition by all but the youngest children.
Late winter/early spring celebrations
There are a number of late winter/early spring holidays, none of which stands out, but any of which could be included in a festival year.
Groundhog's Day is the first event that suggests the end of winter is in sight. It is a lightweight event, but may be worth making a fuss over in southern climates where spring comes early.
Valentine's Day drips with sentiment. But children like it. A case can be made for it representing the time when the spirit of relationship and togetherness is reborn out of the isolation of deepest darkest winter.
Carnival or Mardi-Gras addresses the same issue, and adds the layer of Lent, the anticipation of Easter and the spring for a school that has chosen an openly Christian identity.
Purim is a happy Jewish holiday about lightening up with the coming spring. It represents survival after a threat of destruction and victory over the dark forces, which are appropriate seasonal themes. It is a simple story of good and evil, well-suited to children's plays, and accompanied by a yummy symbolic food (Hamantaschen.)
Easter is the only Christian religious festival whose pagan roots show clearly through the sectarian overlay. Fertility symbols, eggs, are a universal symbol of the new life of spring. (The American substitution of a rabbit for a hare makes this particular symbol awkward and inappropriate, and should probably be avoided.) Some schools and some teachers might need to include more personal interpretation of the Christian meaning of Easter. But the overwhelming role of Easter as the spring holiday, full of flowers and bright colors, should dominate. (One could wish that Easter celebration could be delayed a couple of weeks here in New England so that it fell in late April and really felt like spring instead of cold late winter. It just does not feel right to make a fuss over the coming of a new season while the weather is still that of the old one.)
Both holidays are about the incarnation of God's message here on earth. Pentecost, from what I have heard, has to do with the presence of the Holy Spirit after Jesus' death and resurrection. Shavuot marks the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai. Both represent God's word on earth. For the Jewish people, Torah (used figuratively to represent God's wisdom and literally to mean the five books of Moses) is the ultimate authority on what matters and how to live.
These are important themes, and happen at a seasonally safer, less transitional time. By the time these holidays arrive, we have completed our recovery from winter. Spring is in full bloom, and we look forward to summer. I confess to not having a tradition-based way to celebrate this important event, though dressing in white to commemorate many baptisms on this day seems rather parochial. I would prefer a celebration that reflects the coming into wholeness. Classes could recapitulate all they have learned this school year, as a way of owning their development and accomplishments. A period of review in preparation for the end of the school year: what we have done, what there is yet to do.
The Mayfair is a terrific tradition that has the extra benefit of reaching out to the community at large. It has the sympathetic quality of its labor-movement connection, that we are all common people and ordinary workers in the world.
Independence Day / Midsummer
Most schools are not in session by July. Any that are can celebrate the freedoms that America has made important in the world, including the freedom to be different.
This is an original tradition that lives deeply in our family. We created it as a way for all of us to be on an equal footing in a spiritual/seasonal tradition that was not specific to my wife's Christian, or my Jewish, upbringing.
One Internet correspondent wrote, in response to a comment about the apparent obscurity of many Waldorf festivals in the American culture: "Celebrating [festivals] in the context of the seasons should be more helpful for the children in that they should have little preexisting association for the festival and that the archetype of the festival can live in their imaginations without preconceptions. It becomes for many children a 'Waldorf' festival." His point suggests that a newly introduced tradition, if followed and reinforced, takes on as much meaning for a child as an older tradition might.
Our family--my wife, two daughters and myself--created such a tradition when the girls were very small. Based on their eagerness to participate in it and the reverence with which they treat it four times each year, this tradition is very much alive within them. It is a tradition that reinforces the seasonal and yearly change that is so central to the Waldorf year.
We call them Seasonfests: Summerfest, Fallfest, Winterfest, and Springfest. In the early part of each season on a day that seems the perfect example of that time of year, we go out into a clearing in the woods behind our house. The day will generally fall after the solstice or equinox that begins the calendar season. But it must be a day that smacks of the season: crisp in the fall, or with trees in bud, or a little snow on the ground. To mark the seasons honestly, we must be able to experience them, not just read them on a calendar. In this way, the official passage of time is poignant, and real for each one of us.
In the clearing, we hold hands in a circle, and each of us gets to speak about the season. The words may be a prayer, a thank you, a description of the season to come, ideas of what we'll do, what we like about that season. Sometimes one of us will perform a song, or we will dance in our little circle. It is always completely spontaneous, and different, yet in many ways the same. In this way we are constructing a tradition that will live with us as a family and as individuals for the rest of our lives. Is this not what the practice of festivals and religion is supposed to do?
One other point about the seasons. Seasonal change is not beholden to a 90 - day rhythm. While the dates of solstices and equinoxes are fixed, the experience of seasonal change varies year to year and with local climate. Spring comes earlier to Atlanta than it does to Maine. If the purpose is truly to mark the transition of the seasons, it makes more sense to choose dates of celebration that are appropriate to a specific school's geography and weather pattern than those that correspond to calendar equinoxes and solstices.
Festivals omittedThis proposed list of festivals leaves a lot out. It leaves out Good Friday, which is a uniquely Christian event which should not be celebrated and does not merit a day off school. It does not include Michaelmas or St. John's Tide, because I do not fully understand their significance or see how they belong. If they are meant to function primarily as seasonal markers, I think there are others which work better. As religious festivals, their primacy in the festival year in America is questionable. As uniquely Waldorf celebrations, there may be a place for them.
I would caution against putting a great deal of emphasis on festivals that are unique (in our place and time) to Waldorf. Most parents feel the tug between the Waldorf community and the rest of their lives. We think the Waldorf way of educating our children is better, but want to retain our ties to other friends and family members. The more we create an alternative culture in our school community, the more we distance ourselves, and our children, from the non-Waldorf people around us.
I have included in this proposal very few Jewish festivals, which are important to me personally. We see in Waldorf classrooms the me-too token celebrations of certain Jewish holidays, most notably, Chanukah and Passover. Chanukah, I have already mentioned. Passover is private. It represents the birth of the Israelite (Jewish) people and that people's covenant with God. I am happy to send a box of matzah to school for snacktime discussion, but Passover is not to be universally shared just because it coincides with Easter, and Jesus celebrated it before he died (the Last Supper was a Passover Seder.) Similarly, the high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are our exclusive province. It would be ridiculous to try to get non-Jews to celebrate them.
I would love to add the perfect holiday from other traditions, but I simply have not done that much research. The schools that need it will find a way to create it.
ClosingI offer this lengthy set of proposals with my eyes open. Many who come from years of involvement with Steiner, Anthroposophy, and Waldorf schools may find a great deal of this unacceptable. Nonetheless, change will affect the Waldorf movement in this country, and some of that change will move Waldorf in the directions I have outlined.
Interest in Waldorf education has grown tremendously in America over the past few decades. This is because it is grounded in wisdom and solid principles which more and more people in this tumultuous society find worthwhile. But this popular approval should not be interpreted as meaning that the system is perfect. Even at a school like ours, where most people agree with the underlying principles and support the faculty and the pedagogy, one hears the rumbling air of doubt about some of the quirky Waldorf ways of doing things.
I think the reason so much support of Waldorf ways remains guarded has to do with the accumulated trappings of its early-century German origins, and the automatic adherence to older forms. Among the families who visit the school but decide against sending their children, most appear to do so because it just seems too quaint or odd or out-of-step.
These proposals are a suggestion for an American Waldorf school, and may not apply to schools elsewhere, or even to all schools in this country. Some schools are too deeply-rooted to want to change much. But there are also many other schools without deep roots or full enrollment for which an American agenda is needed to help form the school and help it find its place in its own community.
Another phenomenon which lends momentum to the movement to revitalize the festival calendar is the spate of public schools, especially charter schools, which have been formed in alignment with Waldorf principles. Milwaukee, San Diego, a newly proposed school in Lynn, Massachusetts and others have all embraced some form of Waldorf education in publicly-funded schools. These schools cannot legally celebrate denominationally-exclusive festivals. A more secular festival calendar, based on seasonal changes but without specifically Christian content, would make parts of the Waldorf philosophy that much more accessible to Waldorf-inspired public schools, which would add momentum to the Waldorf movement and increase the harmony between private Waldorf and public Waldorf-inspired schools.
In closing, I understand that in life you cannot ever get rid of anything, nor should you, really. Rather than suggest that festivals I personally do not like or disagree with should be dumped overboard, I am recommending that those which are most appropriate, in all senses, be the ones that rise to the fore over time.
Change is inevitable. In a tradition as deep and involved as Waldorf
education, changes should happen ever so carefully, but not so
slowly as to be invisible This proposal suggests changes which
would help the American Waldorf schools of tomorrow to serve a
wide range of families as effective institutions of learning,
training young people to be whole and responsible citizens of
the living civilization of the twenty-first century.
One other suggestion from Jewish tradition that schools anywhere may adopt is Tsedakah: Tsedakah is a Hebrew word which means "righteousness" and is commonly used to refer to charitable giving. In Jewish homes and institutions, one finds Tsedakah boxes, little metal or wooden boxes into which people drop spare coins or bills whenever they pass or think about it. (One Internet correspondent said she keeps one in her laundry room for change left in pockets.) This money is typically given to the poor or sick, in recognition of each person's responsibility to those less fortunate in our communities.
Waldorf schools are so often strapped for operating cash that
they may fail to look beyond their walls to others whose basic
needs are unmet. A Tsedakah box - it could also be called "the
community coffer" or named after a local agency that recives
contributions - would be a symbol of a broader perspective. Money
collected could be donated to a local soup kitchen or shelter.
No one should be coerced into making a donation. Tsedakah boxes
in the school office or in classrooms would be an inconspicuous
step toward acknowledging our good fortune and our responsibility
as regards the well-being of the society outside our walls.
Respectfully submitted, September 1996,
© 1996 Stuart Cohen
Please mail comments and questions to: Stuart@shore.net
This page maintained by Robert F. Lathe and Nancy Parsons Whittaker.
Please mail comments and questions to: email@example.com
Last update: November 30, 1997