Michaelmas, traditionally celebrated in Medieval times on the last day of the Harvest and near the Autumn Equinox, is just around the corner on September 29th. When my children were enrolled in Waldorf school, it was one of our favorite festivals, though admittedly I may have looked forward to it each year even more than they did! One of my favorite things about being a Waldorf parent was the seasonal festivals--Michaelmas being the first one of the school term! The whole school gets involved, with each class level having its own special task to aid in the merriment and ring in the colder months with cheer and good will.
I think it's so important to recognize holidays like Michaelmas that honor the turn of the seasons with little ones, to help remind them of the natural cycles of the Earth, the shortening and lengthening of daylight, and the fluctuations in temperature--the same things families in the Medieval era were taking note of when they celebrated the feast of Saint Michael hundreds of years ago! How special to be able to carry on that sacred tradition today.
In Medieval Europe, Michaelmas Day marked the beginning of Winter curfew--the days were getting shorter and this meant people had to return to their homes and douse the fire in their hearths earlier. Saint Michael, an archangel recognized within Islam, Christianity, and Judaism as an emblem of strength and protection, is feasted to on this day. St. Michael is usually depicted conquering a dragon--an image that is often adopted by Waldorf schools as a metaphor for finding one's inner strength in order to slay his or her internal and external "dragons". Within the Waldorf community, the feast of Saint Michael is generally referred to as "the festival of strong will", and centers around the idea of preparing oneself for the cold, dark winter by gathering protection and warmth; soaking up enough joy and strength to last through the Winter Solstice, when the sun will slowly start to make its way back and the days will get longer.
If you're interested in celebrating Michaelmas Day this year with your children's classroom, homeschool group, or just at home with family or friends, here are some ideas to get you started; my favorite ways to ring in the end of the harvest season and generate much-needed warmth for the chilly months ahead.
When my children attended Waldorf school as kindergarteners, I loved visiting their classroom and helping their peers hand dye silk "capes" in preparation for Michaelmas festivities. We'd mix goldenrod flowers and stems with a mordant, such as alum, to make a beautiful brilliant-golden dye bath. The children were so excited and awed as they watched their plain white silks transform into magical, sparkling, golden capes, which they helped wring out and hang to dry in the sunlight. When they are presented with their capes, during the school-wide Michaelmas pageant, their teacher says to them: "I give to you a cape of light, to give you courage, strength, and might." The cape's golden hues are symbolic of the light of the sun--a light children must work hard to preserve even in dark times!
Another favorite activity in our household came the night before Michaelmas, when children leave their swords on the doorstep to be turned gold by St. Michael in the night. Children can help to craft and sand down a simple, wooden sword, and will be delighted when they find it in the morning with a layer of glistening gold paint. Then, later on at the pageant, they will be officially presented with their sword, under the condition that they only use it to do good in the world. A gentler alternative to this, for younger children, would be to decorate a soft silk sword together, with "gemstones", ribbons, or paint. As you work on the sword together, talk about what it means to "do good". What kind of good deeds will they set out to accomplish with their Michaelmas cape and sword in hand? A lovely verse that is usually in the Michaelmas play goes nicely with the presenting of the cape and sword:
Brave and true I will be
Each good deed sets me free.
Each kind word makes me strong.
I will fight for the right,
I will conquer the wrong.
When the actual day of the festival comes about all of the children are put to work with their different assigned tasks, in true harvest time spirit! A work day that involves everyone and ends in an evening of feasting and play is such a great way to instill community-minded values in your little ones--they will recognize the rewarding feeling of having worked hard alongside their peers and the larger school community, making the pageantry and the festivities at the day's end all the more sweet. If your school doesn't recognize Michaelmas Day, perhaps it's a good opportunity to arrange an afternoon of volunteering at a local charity, or working hard in the garden! Like our ancestors in the Middle Ages, we're going to need the strength, support, and love of our community to get us through the darkness of Winter!
Then comes the pageant, in many acts, including a special harvest dance and, of course, the story of St. George (the earthly manifestation of St. Michael), defeating the dragon. The story goes that St. George slays the dragon, while St. Michael the archangel provides spiritual guidance and inner strength. Typically, the "dragon" is actually comprised of an entire sixth grade class, who build the large dragon costume themselves. A twelfth grade student plays the role of St. George/St. Michael as he conquers the dragon. I've heard of several Waldorf schools who have adopted aspects of the original story to make it gentler and better suited for the younger grades, such as versions where Michael tames the dragon by offering it an apple. There are plenty of ways to bend the original story to make it more appealing to different age groups without sacrificing the integrity of its message about reconciling your own internal and external darkness and challenges as one heads into the shorter, colder months.
You can see a script for a Michaelmas play, featured in a 1976 issue of Waldorf Clearing House Newsletter, here on the bottom of page three. It provides some classic verses that you can use to shape your own Michaelmas pageant, but I encourage getting creative! There are so many beautiful poems about St. Michael out there, you could easily piece together and craft your very own Michaelmas play. I particularly like this last verse from Rudolf Steiner's last lecture:
Ye, the disciples of Spirit-Knowledge,
Take Michael’s Wisdom-beckoning,
Take the Word of Love of the Will of Worlds
Into your souls’ aspiring, actively!
Of course, a fundamental part of ancient Michaelmas celebrations would have been the village-wide feast at the end of the work day, and it's a well-loved tradition amongst contemporary Waldorf families as well! Third grade students bake dragon bread by molding dough (any basic soda bread recipe will do) into the shape of a sleeping dragon, with smaller pieces of dough stuck on its back as "scales" and cranberries or raisins for the eyes. Even if you're not attending a big Michaelmas feast this year, dragon bread is an easy project to do with your children at home and a wonderful way to introduce others to the spirit of St. Michael. Other treats you might see at a Michaelmas feast include apple cider, pumpkin bread, or--if you're trying to be very authentic to its Medieval origins--a goose pie!
"The Festival of Self-consciousness, bringing man near to his true humanity — wherever the leaves are falling, there it is solemnized, man only needs to become conscious of it. It is the Festival of Michael, the Festival of the Beginning of Autumn. The picture of “Michael Triumphant” can be there; it can live in man. In Summer man is received lovingly into Nature; but if he would not be deprived of the centre and balance of his being, he must not lose himself in her but be able to rise up in Autumn in the strength and might of his own spirit-being. Then will the picture of Michael Triumphant live within him."
How is your family celebrating Michaelmas this year? Is this your first time participating in the festivities? Please share your ideas below, so that others in our community can be inspired!