The cycle of the year in the Waldorf school

Sven Saar

At the start of the school year, the end of the summer, a breath of August warmth still wafts through the school playground but the mood is quite different from the one before the holidays. A new start lies in the air which takes the legacy of the summer but moves towards autumn with renewed vigour. In many Waldorf schools the first class pupils walk through a gate decorated with sunflowers. What an appropriate image for their biographical situation: their soul was allowed to blossom and radiate during the time they were in kindergarten, a time characterised by heart warmth. But the seeds lie waiting, gently nurtured, in the children. In the following weeks the blossoms will fade and kindergarten will gradually be forgotten, but the seeds flourish – until one day they separate from the flower head. Then they have arrived fully in school and Michaelmas has arrived.

From Michaelmas to Christmas

Outside the wind becomes colder and inside school we turn our eyes towards inner values. The courage required to assert ourselves against the forces of darkness plays a big role in many stories connected with St Michael. As part of the Michaelmas celebrations this can be shown in playful elements, such as for example going on a ghost ride designed with much imagination by older pupils. Some schools organise a big work project in the school grounds: bushes need to be pruned and the excess growth of summer removed so that the autumnal inner clarity also finds its external counterpart. Fires are lit and thorny suckers cut back; at the end everyone sits down together to enjoy a bowl of hot soup and the feeling of having cleared something out.

Gradually the mists settle in and October draws to an end. Now arithmetic main lessons are held in many classes because when it is gray outside it is easier to create clarity in the mind.

On 31 October it is Halloween (All Hallows Eve)! Originally this was a Celtic festival (Samhain) at which the dead were remembered who are allowed to approach particularly closely to the realm of the living during this night. The pumpkin masks in the windows were actually meant to frighten off the evil spirits for whom the veil to the earthly world has also become thinner. But the basic gesture is one of appreciation of the deceased. This time of the year can be used to plant bulbs with the children for the coming year and illustrate to them in the image of the dried bulb how human beings can make all the difference through their actions: if I leave the bulb in the cupboard, it remains dead. If I plant it in the earth, I give it the opportunity to develop and bring to expression what slumbers within it – a lasting image for thinking about the people who are no longer on earth and one of many opportunities to unite earth life and soul experience.

November is quite an empty month in nature and we should not attempt to fill it artificially. The Martinmas celebrations and the lantern procession are bright highlights during this time in which the days noticeably lose in intensity. I do not yet withdraw with my light to the kitchen table – as later with the advent wreath – but courageously go out into the world with it. Elements of Michaelmas and Christmas can meet and combine at this hour.

Finally advent arrives! Everyone will be familiar with the “When does the advent spiral start? We’re very late! Do the children have their coats on? I’ve lost my glasses? Where are the car keys? All the parking spaces have probably gone!”

But even if the drive to school until everyone is settled on the narrow benches was rushed and stressful, the soul is nevertheless relieved of its burdens and we regain some calm during this intimate hour as the light slowly grows brighter together with, the quiet songs and sounds of the lyre. Children can manage this transition in a few minutes but for us adults, too, such a moment is of infinite benefit!

At Christmas our soul forces strengthen noticeably as we experience the repetition of what is familiar to us. The stars in the window, the songs filling the classrooms in three languages, the small rituals around advent which have developed at every Waldorf school and, of course, the Oberufer Christmas plays – everything familiar and yet never the same! Each year, some schools light the advent candles on the large wreath in the school hall. A group of pupils surrounds it, each class is represented. Each one fetches the light from the large candles to light their own lantern. At the end of the short celebration they lead their fellow pupils back to their class room and light the candles on the class’ advent wreath. In this way the whole school comes together in a quiet moment and the light, a moment ago still at the centre, is carried to the periphery. The pupils often take the role of the light bearer surprisingly seriously. A burly class 8 pupil said to me, after I had handed the lantern to him: “At last! Since class 1 I have waited every year to be allowed to be the light bearer. And each year it was someone else’s turn. I thought you’d forgotten about me!”

From Christmas to Eastern

At around Epiphany is an excellent time to do astronomy in middle school, not just because the image of the three Wise Men puts us “in the picture”, but also because the early and clear frosty nights often give a lovely, unobstructed view of the winter constellations.

In the further course of winter, Candlemass and also the equinox (start of spring) set further highlights. The younger ones sow wheat in small pots on Ash Wednesday and observe during Lent how the green shoots thrust upwards through the earth: the old dies off, the new arises. From about class 6 onwards, the consciousness in which the course of the year is experienced changes.

If the small child is still wholly immersed in the rituals and has enjoyed the pictorial world, in middle school this is supplemented by active understanding: how is the date of Easter connected with the phase of the moon? Why does Carnival occur each year on a different date? Should we as a class decided to do without something we really like during Lent?

From Easter to St John’s Tide

After Easter we take great strides towards summer and nature changes daily. The class 3 pupils prepared some land in the autumn through ploughing, manuring and harrowing and sowed winter wheat or potatoes. Then during the cold period of the year they kept checking whether anything was happening. Now, in early summer, the field crops have to be tended. Colorado beetles have to be picked off, preparations sprayed and, above all, there has to be constant weeding. Here the child is as close as they can get to the sprouting forces of the earth and learns that human beings have to tame them through their actions and reason in order to make them useful.

Many class 5 pupils keep an individual tree diary: now there is an awful lot to observe – not just the growth of the buds and leaves but also the reawakening of the animal world.

In my class we kept a beehive at the classroom during this time: attached to the window frame, the insects had direct access to the outside and could be observed in their work through the window pane. With the insects we of course also have the flowers and blossoms and from May it is wonderfully possible to sit outside and draw plants on small drawing pads directly from nature.

The time of excursions and class trips begins: people are drawn out into the world in summer and in school this tendency is married with the curriculum. Class 4 investigates the environment of the school in local history, class 5 for the first time takes a trip through Germany together, class 6 can explore geological principles with its walking boots and class 7 has its chemistry main lesson in the school playground: combustion processes are better demonstrated outside the classroom and, furthermore, warmth is the dominant element all around us. It has long been a question of mine why at seasonal tables and in windows white doves hare hung up to symbolise the Holy Spirit – at Whitsun he came in the form of fire!

Class 2 locates more and more to the outside. The pupils gained a great deal of self-confidence in climbing and balancing in the movable classroom and now it is time to conquer the trees in the playground. Even better if they have cherries growing on them – the ripest ones are in the crown! The weekly reading class, in which each child nabs a book and is supported in their reading as necessary by the teacher and helping parents, can also take place outside if the weather is good enough – on a shady bench, by a sunny wall or even in the fork of a tree …

The festival of St John’s Tide at the summer solstice forms a highlight for the school community in many Waldorf schools. The celebrations might start with an evening picnic to which all families contribute something and at which they can meet one another across classes. This is followed by summer games and dances in the meadow.

On any other day the little ones would long have been in bed. Today the actual programme is only just beginning: everyone gathers in the school playground and individual classes recite poems and perform circus tricks. Then, at dusk, a story is told and at about half-past-nine a long procession of people, guided by torches, returns to the meadow where the oldest class already stands by the bonfire, recites a verse in the respectful silence and then together lights the fire from all sides. The flames leap up brightly and with them rises the sound of voices and instruments into the summer night, Later on, parents, teachers and the older pupils will still jump over the smouldering embers. Such nights are unforgettable!

After midsummer, the everyday work of the teachers – or at least their weekends – is taken up with another rhythm with a human cause – that of the carefully and caringly crafted reports. This, too, is a recurring ritual filled with life because we never write the same thing. Each child has changed in the past year and yet has remained true to themselves.

In the final weeks of the school year there are still many opportunities to enjoy the special nature of the season. Classes celebrate summer festivals with parents and siblings – a large garden can usually be found for this purpose in the community which is affirmed and strengthened by such activity. A walk in a stream can be undertaken with class 2 pupils in which we literally walk in the water and feel the contrast between the heat of summer and the coolness of the water. Thus the year inclines towards the summer holidays – and how long will those remain faced with the requirements of a changing world of work? Now the time has come to breathe out, to enjoy the absence of plans and programmes.

Towards the end of the holidays both children and parents become impatient: time for school to start again and the tree of life to acquire another ring!

About the author: Sven Saar is a class teacher at the Wahlwies Free Waldorf School in Stockach.