What does it mean? Renewing the festivals – through understanding

Fabrizio Venturini

Many parents who send their children to a Waldorf institution would like to include something of the festive culture which is maintained there in the way that they themselves celebrate the festivals because they experience it as beneficial for their children. Their question is: how can the festivals be renewed at home?

If this is to succeed, the first thing we must understand is that the festivals originate in deeper layers of human existence, were cultivated over long periods in the community and were taken for granted by the latter. Today it would be more in accordance with our time that they increasingly become the subject of individual intent so that people celebrate them of their own free will through their own insight. But before being able to renew the festivals, we first have to understand their nature. That knowledge must take hold of the life of our feelings and will, then we can gradually begin to implement it. Such a renewal can only be sustained if we not only understand their meaning but also feel it.

Emancipation from tradition

Anyone who wants to celebrate the festivals in emancipation from the tradition of the churches cannot start alone from historical events or the recurring seasons, they must include the motifs and impulses or our cultural development. As a reflection of the dynamic development over time, the year can be divided into seven thematic sections. These are related to what Rudolf Steiner described as “cultural epochs of humanity”. From this perspective, the round dance of the festivals begins with the summer solstice, reaches its mid-point at Christmas and remains unfinished after the fifth stage at Whitsun, corresponding to our present epoch. In other words, it remains open for future developments. Two new festival themes will still join the others at a later time, turning the wheel of the year into a spiral and overlaying the current St John’s festival. The year can thus currently be divided into five main festive periods:

• There is one period which connects with the prehistoric “paradisiacal” childhood stage of humanity (midsummer/St John’s day).

• One period in which human beings decide on their own initiative to act against threatening forces of decline (autumn/Michaelmas).

• One period in which human beings know that they cannot progress without help “from above” and in which they prepare for such help (winter/Advent and Christmas).

• One period in which the foundation for the renewal of humanity from within is built (spring/Epiphany to Easter).

• One period in which it is important to transfer this renewal, the “focal event” of human development, into our own heart thinking and unite into a world community at a spiritual level (Ascension and Whitsun).

Midsummer – St John’s day

The first festive period is about developing some sort of a sense of an earlier nomadic existence which unites us with the spiritual forces in nature, that is, the experience of the elements of earth, water, air and warmth. The typical ideal here is to let go, let oneself drift, entrust oneself to external nature. This festive period is characterised by allowing oneself to be surprised by events in an unplanned and relaxed way. Many people seek such experiences on holiday. A suitable picture in this respect would be: running with arms raised down a dune on the beach, driven by the warm wind, and letting oneself fall on the soft sand.

The same gesture occurs in the play of small children. It can be experienced and enjoyed in a carefree way. We live “like the gods”, full of spontaneity, openness and improvisation, with light clothes, adorned with flowers and feathers “like in ancient India”. Games and smaller undertakings filled with lightness and good humour characterise the festivities which are best organised in this “primordial” time of the year outside in the garden under shelters made of branches or in tents. Hopping and scouting games as well as marvelling at objects of nature are part of it. Natural foods are important (picking berries, for example) as is the “metabolic activity” with nature – by going hiking, for example. The festive element occurs, without expending any great effort, in the experience through the senses and in movement and tends to be a sequence of moments.

Autumn – Michaelmas

In contrast, the autumnal stage of celebration is quite different. We all sit together at table telling one another about what we have experienced while enjoying food and drink which have been made through human work. Or we enjoy attractions which have been created by the inventiveness of the human spirit – such as village festivals or funfairs. This is about discussing common affairs and about tests of courage in the encounter with adversary powers and powers of darkness, with death and the dead.

The focus is on the human being as an individual and as a group being. Measuring oneself competitively against others in table and party games and daring to do something which one cannot yet quite manage is part of this festive period. We seek challenges and face up to darkness and scary events. Like a lantern, we light an inner light which still needs to be protected by a transparent cover and carry it before us; we combatively side with illumination against coldness and hardening which we “plough up” with tractive and turning power. We can do that in a modern way through house, courtyard and civic festivals to which we invite others. We establish a new culture “like in ancient Persia”, make ready to educate ourselves inwardly. “I want to become a warrior for the future good,” is our inner resolution. We engage with learning, demand and practice freedom of thought in the way that Friedrich Schiller did, for example, whose image of the “ignited divine spark” captures the gesture.

Winter – Advent – Christmas

The third developmental stage is connected with the insight that we are dependent on the help of spiritual powers. The earthly alone cannot help us further and we need a gift from above. The essential thing about St Nicholas Day, for example, is that something transcendental really does touch this world, someone who arrives “like a person in a starry or majestic cloak” who knows my innermost being and strengthens it to do good. In terms of human history, this corresponds to the time when the heavenly script was read in Mesopotamia and recorded in written characters, when the Pharaoh in Egypt was “trained” through the pyramids in clairvoyance, that is “initiated”, and the Hebrews prepared the coming of the Redeemer.

Concealed behind all these things is the mystery which we can understand and recognise with the heart, the most important hallmark of the Advent and Christmas period. Every endeavour to give these festivals a new form must contain gifts and mystery. The Christmas tree, which only entered the living room in modern times, is a symbol: the upright triangle as an image of the “inner sun” which has now come down to earth to fill social life with warmth, light and justice. The gradual step-by-step illumination of earthly things underlies the relatively recent custom of the Advent wreath, and the sentiment of love – not just restricted to the family – the “secret Santa”. We could develop that further. Bestowing gifts without making a lot of fuss about it and our own decision to be unselfish are characteristics based on the gift which the Father God has placed at the centre of our soul “like a child in the manger” with the Christmas mystery. Out task is to become aware of and care for the spiritual child of love within.

Spring – Epiphany – Easter

The inner rebirth and the appearance of the mystery of love outlines the beginning of the fourth festive period (Epiphany). To this end the old must be cleared out and what has turned to body given up (Lent). We become one of the Kings serving the childlike purity in each person, as is endeavoured in true science, in art and in genuine religion. The mystery of transformation should also appear outwardly. The renewed human being first appears in the “etheric”, that is in the sphere of the artistic formative forces and non-sensory thinking. That is the true spring: Easter. The resurrection of the Son of God, who sacrificed himself by passing through death as a human being, forms the central turning point in human history. This event, which indicatively took place in Roman times and was recorded in the Greek language, provides us with the foundation for substantial change and can serve us as a model.

It should at first be assimilated with the reason and mind. We can practice abstinence as an individual habit for example – not just with regard to eating too much but also perhaps in connection with excessive consumption, driving a car and use of our mobile phone – and thereby become a personality, our own King. That can go hand-in-hand with abstaining from a display of power. That it is possible to renew oneself out of spiritual intent can also be described as the search for a new colourfulness, casting light on the true meaning of many Easter customs. They then become ecumenically accessible.

Ascension and Whitsun

We fully enter the present time with the fifth festive period. This should be a time of individual presence of mind, a time of grasping the healing impulses coming from our I which is ready to transform itself and feels connected with the world and responsible for other people and creatures. Every person can let themselves be inspired by this healing spirit in their own individual way. This state really only started with the Renaissance; it is the expression of a modern understanding of humanity. The Whitsun event is not something that has been but it is currently taking place – if we human beings are willing to receive it, if we come together in the spirit to form a world community and in this community allow what is individual in each one of us to come to full expression. Peace doves then gather around such a creation and identify it. Inwardly we feel rejuvenated.

We can already begin to have an idea of future developments, which will take place in two steps: they will be about the creation of a new sociality, about life in free personal responsibility and truth. That will lift the cycle of development on to a new level. Then the earth will be completely illuminated with and infused by love.

In summary, we can identify five stages:

• the natural human being (with reverence for nature and healthy senses),

• the human being resolved to adopt a combative, working attitude (with personal initiative and meaning),

• the human being ready to be endowed from above and preparing for that (with a sense of the inner power of development),

• the sacrificing human being who understands the glad tidings (with reason and a mind for transformation),

• the human being who brings these tidings to expression independently and in freedom (with consciousness of the spirit).

Those are the five stages on which the basic outlines for a renewal of the festivals are based. That also includes the struggle against false counter-images: when tests of courage turn into horseplay, when the blue Nicholas turns into the red Coca Cola man, when kitsch and fashion determine Christmas decorations or when the Three Kings become fundraisers who, for payment, bring salvation into our homes. Bringing the festivals to life on the basis of understanding as a corrective is an important task for all of us.

About the author: Fabrizio Venturini has worked for many years as a lecturer at the Waldorf Kindergarten Seminar Stuttgart.