Earlier this week we celebrated the winter solstice here in the Southern Hemisphere. This is a much anticipated celebration in our home. My kids and their friends (and all of us mamas!) talk excitedly about the day’s plans for weeks into the lead up.
Many families following holistic models of education within their homes (Steiner inspired or not), are drawn to celebrating the seasonal festivals. Celebrations are an important part of holistic education in general, and iconic to the Waldorf schools in particular, but do you know why they’re so important?
I’ll share a little of our winter solstice celebrations with you another day, but first I wanted to talk to you about some of the challenges you might face in planning and celebrating the festivals as part of the homeschool year.
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The best place to start is in understanding the purpose behind celebrating festivals with our children. As with all things in holistic homeschooling, marking the festivals should be done with meaning. So why do we celebrate throughout the year?
Children, particularly before around the age of 10, are not entirely aware of chronological time. It is a difficult concept for them to grasp. Having festivals spaced throughout the year gives them anchor points to centre their sense of time around. Just as they use meals, etc in their daily rhythm to begin to understand the passing of hours and the order of the day, children use the festivals to begin to comprehend the passage of the year. They know that the spring festival comes after the cold days of winter, which begin after their autumn harvest feast. In this way, they can begin to string together the events of the year and place themselves within time.
Similarly, celebrating the festivals helps children find themselves within place.
In our increasingly fragmented and isolated society, a sense of community is missing from our lives. In endeavouring to educate our children holistically, we are stating that we want them to value and respect people, to become active and engaged community members, and responsible citizens. Festivals are community events. They require us to come together, each playing our individual parts, to make something bigger than ourselves. To make something beautiful that we can all share. Celebrating together helps children begin to understand this interdependence and to appreciate togetherness in their community. Even in celebrating the same festival, each community will celebrate in a way that is unique to them, helping children to understand and appreciate the place the live in.
Celebrating the festivals also helps children to notice and appreciate the changes in the earth. Their lives become intimately tied to nature and in doing so, their awe and respect grows. One of the aims of holistic education is to raise children who are environmentally conscious and responsible. Celebrating the earth and their connection to our planet is a key way to foster this relationship which in turn leads to responsible action in later life.
Another aim of holistic education is to nurture our children’s spiritual growth. This doesn’t mean having them follow a particular religious or spiritual path, neither does it have anything to do with new age ideas, rather it means fostering a sense of reverence in our children and providing them with a foundation to explore their own ideas on the nature of humans and of the world as they go through life. The ritual aspect of festivals is one way to help children experience this reverent feeling and encourage them towards a rich inner life as they grow.
With this emphasis on community, what do we do when we as homeschoolers find ourselves in the position of not belonging to a Steiner (or other intentionally holistic) community? We have a few options.
Firstly you can check with your local schools to see which festivals they have open to the public and how you are able to participate. Schools often encourage Steiner families from the wider community to participate in at least some of their seasonal festivals. If you are very lucky, the school may also be able to point you towards a Waldorf homeschool group in your area.
You don’t have to celebrate with a group of Steiner educating families though. Celebrations can be held within your own family, with just as much reverence and meaning as they would have held in a larger group. Sometimes with more feeling than in a group! You can also get together with your homeschool friends who are on other educational paths and celebrate with them. The festival doesn’t have to mimic what is happening in the school environment to be worthwhile, so try creating your own annual events with your homeschool buddies.
The other area that homeschool families particularly struggle with is in not knowing exactly how and why to celebrate the individual festivals. We don’t have schools and their community of teachers to guide us. Often we are the only Steiner-inspired family living in our area. At least the only one that we know of. What happens when we have no one to guide us?
Here is where building your own library helps. As parent educators we can get easily caught up in buying curriculum for our kids, making sure we have purchased everything on the resource list, and stacked the shelves with beautiful and interesting books for them to read. But what about us? We need to be building our parent library as well. Make sure when you are working out your budget each year that you are allocating some of the funds to books for you, and then spend some of that money on books which will help you understand and create meaningful festivals. I will list some great books to add to your shelves further down the page 🙂
Another great place to go for guidance and inspiration is the online community. Follow other Waldorf homeshool families on Instagram, and join in on facebook groups. Community doesn’t just mean neighbours next door anymore, it also means like-minded people connecting with each other from around the globe. Social media is a wonderful tool when used wisely, so don’t be afraid to reach out.
The last major challenge I have noticed, and this one has definitely happened to me too, is that our feelings of inadequacy or overwhelm can get in the way of making the festivals happen. We worry that we won’t be able to pull it off, or we feel so busy with everything else we have going on, that we feel like this is just one more thing to do. It’s too hard. Why bother? And so we don’t.
Oh mama, I hear you. The key here is in learning to let go of comparison. Your celebration doesn’t have to look the same as another family’s. In fact, it’s great if you personalise it. We also need to learn to find the beauty in simplicity. Elaborateness doesn’t equate with meaning. Often the most basic of celebrations is the most reverent.
Australians and those living elsewhere in the southern hemisphere have some additional challenges facing them when it comes to planning their festivals. Our society is largely secular, so celebrating a festival with religious connotations often feels ‘wrong’ to us here. Added to that, our seasons are ‘the wrong way around’ and don’t line up with the cultural side of the festivals. We are left wondering what we should celebrate and when.
These can be tricky waters for Steiner schools to navigate, but here is where homeschoolers have the upper hand. We can choose which festivals have meaning to us and celebrate those. We can enjoy Easter as a cultural holiday, and keep the spring themed activities and symbology for our Spring Fair. We have the freedom to celebrate only those days which hold special meaning for us with no one to tell us otherwise.
Often this means celebrating the four major seasonal holidays, and a couple of cultural holidays thrown in, but feel free to go the whole hog. It’s up to you if moving celebrations to coincide with our seasons, or keeping where they are to marry up to the liturgical calendar, feels more ‘right’ to you. There are anthroposophical arguments for both that you can read up on if you are so inclined (feel free to send me an email if you need an idea on where to start reading).
When you start planning your festivals, these books can be very useful to have on hand. Don’t feel like you need to rush out and buy them all now, but choose on or two to add to your library as funds allow.
This book is divided into seasons with festivals, crafts, activities and foods included in each section.
Stories, songs, recipes and more for each of the traditional festivals.
Seasonal crafts and activities that you may like to include in your festival preparations.
Songs, stories and crafts for the seasonal festivals. This one is a much loved favourite in our home. It is not a Waldorf specific book but I find it rich, loving and helpful.
A focus on celebrating the festivals with children under the age of 7.
For those wanting to explore Steiner’s anthroposophic ideas on the festivals.
There is another Australian specific festival book that I can’t quite put my finger on at the moment. But I will update you when I find it on my shelf 😉 Many of these books are also available on Book Depository or from local Steiner book stores.
Do you have any favourite festival resources that are missing from my shelves?
Next week I will share with you some of my tips for creating meaningful celebrations in your own home, so make sure you have subscribed and are also following through your preferred social media so that you don’t miss out on those tips. It will really help put today’s more theoretical conversation into practice!