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Creation of new Waldorf festivals based on local conditions

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by Vera Hoffmann, November 2016, research results of a master's thesis at the RSUC Oslo, Norway, March 2016
Published in Waldorf Resources

As a multiculturally interested Waldorf class teacher, it was my wish to contribute with a master's thesis at the RSUC Oslo to the interculturalism of the Waldorf movement. The latter is now firmly established on every continent, in various cultures and in more than three major world religions. The idea for an appropriate research focus was developed in consultation with the Pedagogical Section in Dornach. Possible transformations of typical Waldorf annual festivals, based on local conditions, would have to be investigated. For this purpose, I traveled to Peru to the small andine-indigenous Waldorf school Kusi Kawsay in Pisac, Peru in the Sacred Valley of the Incas and to the multicultural and multi religious Nairobi Waldorf School in Kenya. I examined the processes of establishment and development of new annual celebrations in each school, as well as their theoretical backgrounds.

In the first article, I examine the importance of the annual festivals in Waldorf schools and some related, relevant statements by Rudolf Steiner.

 Annual Festivals in Waldorf Schools and their Possible Renewal

The significance of festivals at Waldorf schools

A rich festival culture is one of the central features of Waldorf school life. The school year is includes many festive occasions, which bestow colour, diversity and joy. At many schools the annual Waldorf bazaar is such a festive moment, but also the school festivals with the presentations of the classes is a celebratory event in which not only the eyes of the children and teens seem to glow brighter but also those of parents and teachers. The public celebration of the first school day of the first graders, the class theatres, possibly of grade 8 and 12, the presentations of the graduation projects, together with final year artistic performances are equally part of such festive occasions in which the school community is celebrating.

Apart from or interwoven into those festive occasions, the annual festivals themselves often add specific colours and qualities to such celebratory events. In Waldorf schools in Europe, North America or other parts of the world where the majority of the population has a Christian background, those annual festivals are often oriented to traditional Christian festivals. In the past, this Christian orientation has clearly been deepened through the relation of Waldorf education with anthroposophy´s cosmic, trans-religious understanding of the Christ being. Today, Waldorf education has expanded into every continent and many cultures, and also into almost every major world religion. International migratory streams are triggering a cultural-religious merging of the formerly mainly Christian oriented societies of Europe. Because of these circumstances, the close connection between Waldorf annual festivals and Christian festivals raises questions, mainly abroad but also in European countries. These questions concern the content, but also the structure of the festivals, which –often originating in central Europe- has been brought to far away countries and continents.

For example: can a Waldorf tradition like the St. Martin's Lantern Festival, celebrated on 11th November, be exported to Australia? And to which degree do we in Europe today have the task to design our festivals in such a way that they can also have an integrative effect towards members of other than Christian cultures and religions? The latter is an ever growing part of our societies. What then is the true Christian foundation of Waldorf education?

Importance of the festivals for the school community
For the preparation of a bazaar, but also in the preparation of other festivities, cooperation is needed. The bazaar, in many schools, is the result of parents' cooperation. For the school festivals, cooperation is asked from teachers and pupils; in class plays or final artistic presentations from the involved pupils, as well as from their teachers. Such activities are only possible through a strong identification of the individual with the celebration on the one hand and with the school on the other, and then, in turn, they reinforce this identification with the school community. This process results in shared warmth and joy during the festivity itself, which, for a moment, can put aside social conflicts or other worries. Thus, the school community is strengthened.

Significance of (annual) festivals for the child
For the child, the experience of being able to present some of the results of her learning efforts to the parents and to the rest of the school community at the school festivals is significant. Presentations on stage in the protected framework of the class community strengthen the child´s psychological development through the growth of self-confidence. In the festive class plays, the older child or adolescent can practice an ever more autonomous and differentiated appearance in front of spectators.

However, annual festivals in particular are of special pedagogical significance for the development of the child. They help the child to increasingly find orientation in time. For the younger child, time is still passing slowly. Annual festivals help to subdivide time into different qualities, such as, for example in Christian oriented Europe, the sequence St. Michael's – St. Martin's - Christmas - Carnival - Easter – St John's. The child feels increasingly at home in these festivals, while adolescents often use them for the necessary pubertal demarcation, in order to maybe pick them up later, as an adult or parent, in an individual form. Thus, annual festivals provide a sustainable experience of being at home in time. In our present fast-paced life, of holidays in far away countries, with human relationships which are often breaking apart too rapidly, such a place of 'inner residence' can not be given enough weight.

It is important to note that the well - kept culture of annual festivals not only enables a home in time but also in space. In the best of cases, annual festivals reflect the rhythms of the surrounding nature and, at the same time, they are mirrors of local and religious traditions as well as the cultural customs of the area.

Manifold orientation in space and time during festive events, and especially in the celebration of annual festivals, therefore offer a rich developmental potential for the child. An exploration of the question of the contemporary development of annual festivals at Waldorf schools thus represents an important issue for the international Waldorf movement, not only for the sake of cultural reasons, but also for reasons of the child´s psychological development. Such an exploration can also offer aspects for the current questions within the international Waldorf school movement around the regional adaptation of the curriculum (1).

Rudolf Steiner's aspects on seasonal processes and annual festivals
In the 1923 lecture cycle 'The Year as a Breathing Process of the Earth' (GA 223), Rudolf Steiner presents the annual festivals in a seasonally and globally encompassing context. He describes processes, which are taking place in nature during the four seasons spring, summer, autumn and winter and during their corresponding Christian annual festivals Easter, St. John's, Michaelmas and Christmas. The theme of the globally perceived concepts of the seasons and the annual festivals repeatedly emerge during these years of his work. These concepts constitute the basis of some contemporary discussions about the development of new Waldorf festivals.

If the annual festivals in the northern hemisphere are contextualized with inner motifs of the (Christian) annual festivals, then harmonious pictures emerge: for example, Christmas and the birth of the child as a metaphor for the birth of light in the dark time; or Easter, and the resurrection of Christ in spring, when nature re-emerges from the cold and apparent death processes. However, in the southern hemisphere the Christian annual festivals and the seasons do not match in their inner motives as stringently as in the northern hemisphere, the discussions in the south are more actively conducted than in the northern hemisphere and circle around the question of new annual festivals based on the earth´s inner processes as described by Steiner.

Steiner, in GA 223 (2), assumes that the earth is a living organism, which is performing a rhythmic life together with the seasons. For the description of this rhythmic life, he uses two metaphors connected to human life. On the one hand, he compares it with the processes of sleeping and waking, and on the other with those of inhaling and exhaling. He moreover relates these processes to one another, thus creating a differentiated picture of the global seasonal processes.

'A breathing of forces'

"It is not a breathing of air of which we speak, but the breathing of forces, the inhaling and exhaling of forces, about which one can gain a partial representation when one considers the plant growth in the course of a year," he says on 31st March 1923.

In winter, the vital life of the earth has moved completely into the earth's interior. All forces, such as plant growth, have retreated into this interior of the earth like in a large inhalation process. While we see something like a sleeping state of the wintry earth on the outside, in reality there is the highest level of alertness in the interior of the earth.

Towards spring, the earth slowly begins to exhale these forces, which Rudolf Steiner also describes as the soul powers of the earth. With the equilibrium of the spring equinox, this exhalation process has already gone very far, and the exhaled earthly soul forces are increasingly interacting with the sun and the whole cosmos. This is manifested in the increasing flowering and sprouting of plant life and the growing warmth of the ever-longer days.

The exhalation process reaches its peak in June. Steiner describes how there is a moment of stagnation, an interlude of this breathing process. All the soul forces of the earth have devotedly poured themselves into the cosmos with the sun and its stars. Everything sprouts, grows and blossoms outwardly, and what may appear to human feeling as extreme alertness in nature, Steiner describes as a sleeping state of the earth's interior. Shortly after the summer solstice, the cosmic inhalation process of the earth slowly begins again.

It is clear from Steiner's remarks in GA, 223, that he was highly aware that the conditions in the southern part of the globe are completely different with respect to the seasons than in the northern hemisphere. Thus he emphasizes that the breathing process of the earth, which he had only described locally, actually affects the entire globe. If there is winter on the southern hemisphere, and thus the climax of inhalation has been reached (and extreme mental alertness in the interior of the earth), then there is summer on the northern hemisphere and thus the climax of the exhalation phase has been reached, while the earth´s interior is sleeping. "On the opposite side of the earth the conditions are exactly the opposite. We must imagine the breathing of the earth in such a way that we have exhalation at one place of the earth, while on the opposite side we have inhalation," he describes. A few weeks later in Oslo, he presents it as the tail of a comet which wanders through the earth from one side to the other (GA 226) (3): "... when in the north, the earth soul goes out to the stars and -for the spiritual view- shows itself like a comet tail pulling out to heaven, then at the same time on the other side, the earth soul retires back into the earth, and it is Christmas. And again contrariwise, when here the earth's soul retreats, on the other side the comet's tail stretches out into the cosmos. This goes on simultaneously ". Steiner thus expresses that, when summer is prevailing on the northern hemisphere, it is not only just winter on the southern hemisphere, but Christmas. These words are of particular importance for the discussion about the time of the celebration of the Christian annual festivals in the southern hemisphere.

Christ - the spirit of the earth
In GA 223, Rudolf Steiner expresses his understanding of Christ as a being, which is thoroughly connected with the fate of the earth. In this context, Steiner describes Christ as a very high spiritual being, which once was connected with the spiritual sun. Every ancient religion worshiped him as the sun spirit. In order to unite completely with the fate of the earth and people, he entered the physical body of Jesus. In the death process of his earthly body and in the resurrection, he became one with the earth. Ever since then, Christ is not only the sun spirit, but also the spirit of the earth. Thus, when Steiner speaks about the soul forces of the earth, he actually describes the (trans-religious) Christ forces, which are alive in the weaving and breathing of the seasons, intensively connecting with the earth in winter and giving themselves up to the cosmos in the summer. The image of the earth as an organism animated by the Christ-Earth spirit is of great importance to Rudolf Steiner's understanding of annual festivals and how they have developed in ancient times. Further, the image is crucial for the perception of how festivals could be reconceptualized in the present.

Uncertainties regarding the annual festivals
It is significant today that many people experience, more or less painfully, how the Christian festivals are, at their best, still an external form but often only mean holiday and consumption. A special component of this complex of questions arises –as described- for the people in the southern hemisphere. Historically, the Christian settlers on the southern continents continued their annual festivals at the dates given in the north, regardless of the local seasons.

Today, in the age of ever greater awareness of the individual, an increasing need for a new connection of the festivals with annual-cosmic conditions is emerging. How can such a relation be created?

"Thinking with the Cycle of the Year"
Rudolf Steiner offers some insight for the creation of such a new connection. He suggests to try and look through the external phenomena of nature, which have become abstract to us. In a certain sense, we should recapture a state of consciousness that resembles earlier humanity's mental unity with the environment. Since this unity is often to be found in the religions of indigenous, non-Christian nations, Steiner (GA 190, 'Past and Future Impulses in Social Events' (4) takes up the concept of 'paganism' to describe the unity with nature which has to be newly-acquired: “We have to learn to overcome the abstract perception of nature and reach a tangible cognition of nature. Our Christianity has to be broadened by being infused… with a sound paganism. Nature has to mean something to us again”.

He continues to point out that it is necessary to overcome our indifference towards nature. His concern regarding the connection between annual festivals and the corresponding seasons has to be understood in this light. Steiner calls the corresponding internal activity in GA 223 a 'thinking with the cycle of the year' (5). He describes that from it a new communion of man with the cosmos would emerge and that in ancient times, man once had taken the power to create festivals from this realm. Out of the inner spiritual power of 'thinking with the cycle of the year', humans would have to develop festivals, which would finally connect them to the divine world in a new way again - through the conscious intimate communion with nature. In GA 224 ('The Human Soul in its Connection with Godly-Spiritual Individualities: the internalization of the annual festivals' (6), Steiner goes so far as to express the creation of the annual festivals out of the cycle of the year as a necessary demand for modern human beings:

"We want to be whole human beings, no? Then that requires that we also conduct our processes of creating in a spiritual way as whole human beings. We then not only have to think about the significance of the old festivals. We ourselves then consequently have to become socially creative by creating festivals out of the year´s seasonal cycle."

Metamorphosis of the Waldorf Curriculum - aphoristic questions
In recent years, the question of a regional adaptation of curriculum content has become more and more urgent, posed not only by external critics, but also by international representatives of the Waldorf movement itself.

Among other voices, the picture of New Zealand's Waldorf representative Neil Boland stands out. He speaks of merely sticking wings to a caterpillar. Is it possible for the Waldorf movement to carry out a real metamorphosis of the Waldorf curriculum, a metamorphosis involving local conditions, or do we only stick wings to the caterpillar? So he asks.

I found another related question in my research on the subject of this article. A teacher of the indigenous Waldorf school Kusi Kawsay (Peru) spoke about an idealistic founding teacher of the school´s first years, which introduced Eurocentred elements of the Waldorf festival culture and curriculum contents. The interviewed teacher used the following picture: "She (the founding teacher) showed us the fish, but she did not teach us how to catch the fish." The goal of the school's indigenous founding group had been to integrate as many elements of their own culture as possible into the pedagogy. The impulse and the ability to search and reconcile such elements with the Waldorf curriculum, they later had to develop out of themselves. They had to learn the process of fishing, so to speak.

In the Journal of the Pedagogical Section No. 55 (7), the characteristics of Waldorf pedagogy are characterized. With regard to the question posed here, one finds the following words: "In taking up the indications Rudolf Steiner gave for teaching, which for example draw more on western cultural values, these will need to be supplemented or replaced with correspondingly valuable content, provided the pedagogical effect is thereby preserved”. A large field of work opens up here: Metamorphosis instead of "sticking wings on a caterpillar".


Vera Hoffmann has been a class teacher for the past 25 years. She is currently working in Switzerland. For seven years she was the head of a small, multicultural Waldorf school in Spain. During Vera's time, the school moved away from its Middle European roots and developed into a Spanish speaking school. Vera is particularly interested in the changes within the international Waldorf movement. She is enthusiastic about developments which scrutinize traditions and habits, which are oriented towards contemporary needs and local circumstances and which explore new Waldorf pedagogical methods. In her current class there are families from twelve nationalities, four continents and three world religions. Vera tries to implement her interest in her own class on a small scale.



(1) Boland, Neil: The globalisation of Steiner education: Some considerations. RoSE Journal No. 6. December 2015. 

(2) Steiner, Rudolf: The Year as a Breathing Process of the Earth. GA 223. Dornach. 1923.

(3) Steiner, Rudolf: Man's Being, His Destiny and World Evolution. GA 226. Oslo 1923.

(4) Steiner, Rudolf: Past and Future Impulses in Social Events. GA 190. Dornach 1919.

(5) Steiner Rudolf: Thinking with the cycle of the year. GA 223 a. 1923.

(6) Steiner, Rudolf: The Human Soul in its Connection with Godly-Spiritual Individualities: the internalization of the annual festivals. GA 224. 1923.

(7) International Forum for Steiner/Waldorf Education: Essential Characteristics of Waldorf/Steiner Education. Journal of the Pedagogical Section No. 55. Michaelmas 2015.


Translated by Karin Smith

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