The seasons reconsidered

By Almuth Strehlow, March 2013

Do we need stylised fairies, trolls and dwarfs in order to regain access to nature and its elemental forces? Almuth Strehlow, lecturer at the Rudolf Steiner Institute in Kassel, thinks not. She calls for a new way to present the seasonal table.

© Lorenzo Ravagli

In ancient cultures dwarfs, fairies, sylphs, salamanders and fire spirits were still taken for granted. They were not depicted because there was no wish to exorcise them. We have lost access to this fairy-tale world, yet the longing for it appears all the greater. That is then often expressed in our attempt to capture it through all kinds of cute dolls which we imagine bring these natural beings closer to the child. The small child, however, still lives in a permanently transforming, living atmosphere – it can frequently perceive things which remain hidden to us adults. So when we make all kinds of nice little dolls for the seasonal table it creates a kind of caesura in the child. He or she wants to believe everything the adults say and do, what adults do is good and true, but the child might well still remember a dwarf which he or she saw in the garden a short while previously and which probably did not have a great deal in common with the nice little doll. The child begins to question his or her own perception. 

What the child needs is not a handicraft instruction perfectly executed but that we concern ourselves inwardly with the beings of nature. I might perhaps discover a piece of wood in the bare forest which, with a little carving, can awaken the image of an earth spirit, I might perhaps succeed in seeing the floating sylphs dancing in the rising morning mist and a song for the children takes shape in me, a fire might capture my gaze as if someone were looking me in the eye and a story comes to mind ... Then I will no longer need any handicraft instructions but can read in the great book of nature. Every prescription makes the experiment of experiencing nature anew in its forces each week more difficult.

A walk through the year

So how can I nevertheless create a seasonable table, how can I find ideas and suggestions if I do not have the gift of seeing the spirits of nature?

One such point of entry is the colour which symbolises something of the season, or something from the womb of nature, perhaps also individual symbols if I have grasped them. The following suggestions are not in any way intended to prescriptive but merely suggestions to help create the table.

The new year starts with Epiphany. The blue of the shepherds’ manger can perhaps be replaced by white as an image of the inner clarity of the kingly soul which is wholly in the service of the thinking, of understanding, and by gold-like yellow. The gifts of the Kings can be placed on it – a golden sphere, a little silver vessel with incense and a small copper chest with myrrh. We do, however, have to know what these symbols can mean for us today if they are not just to be hollow forms.

In mid to end February the light changes and winter aconite and snowdrops begin to emerge. Thus the colour of the cloth might change to brown to represent the element of the earth. A piece of root which creates all kinds of images in our imagination could be placed next to the vase with the first harbingers of spring, the snowdrops. It now makes sense to keep the brown base of the earth for a while – outside the brooks begin to flow, the light blue streams through the brown, there is splashing and gurgling, the water allows life to emerge. The catkins are flowering and the first green can be seen – a light green cloth gradually emerges from the back – covering the brown section bit by bit. The empty snail shell brought back from a walk lies on the green, the daffodils are ringing.

The meaning of the period leading up to Easter tends to lie in the gradual awakening of nature for the small child. The bowl of Easter grass begins to green and on Easter Sunday a new period starts which can bring a lot of change with it. I have to decide whether I am going to continue with nature through the course of the year or whether I will include the symbols and images of the Christian festivals – whereby I have to penetrate these images inwardly too.

At Easter I apply the colours red and green, combining death and rebirth. I use the egg as an image of eternal life – one red egg daily next to a bush from Easter onwards – until forty days have passed and we celebrate Ascension. But we might also go more strongly with the course of nature: the green of spring grows stronger, beetles awaken, tulips stand upright, a bird’s nest awaits.

In summer, the focus is on the light quality – before that there is still Whitsun if we want to take account of the Christian festivals. Everything can be a festive white for that purpose, perhaps in silk, with white candles – a candle for every family member – as an image of the pure spirit.

In June, when the light yellow shines like the sun, the butterflies are ready to emerge – the caterpillars feed until they are plump in order then to undergo their transformation. Perhaps we might put a generous bunch of siliceous stinging nettles on the table because that is where many of these beings of the air pupate. The year grows warm and warmer, St John’s Tide comes along – the birth of John the Baptist. Here, too, we need to concern ourselves inwardly with the image before anything else: what does it mean for us today – what does it mean for me, what does it symbolise for the children?

Then midsummer – the many bright tones of yellow, honeycombs and a little pot of honey help us to remember the busy little helpers of the sun without whom the next step in nature, the progression to the fruit, would not be possible. We wholly have to assimilate the warmth of the sun within us, the warmth binds our I to the body, it is the prerequisite for the birth in the depths of winter.

In August, the ripening process clearly starts, yellow turns into warm orange, the first ears of barley decorate the table. The seasonal table increasingly turns into a harvest table, warm orange is joined by red and brown tones, blue has retreated with the arrival of summer, the green grows darker and darker. Barley is joined by other cereals, the grains might be placed in a small wooden bowl – a large bowl of local fruit or vegetables from the garden takes pride of place on the table.

Michaelmas takes over from the blessing of the harvest. A strong red, indicative of courage and our inner strength, plus complementary green now represent a balance. Or we symbolise it through a pair of scales. Perhaps a piece of meteoric iron lies on the table. Autumn: we find the first chestnuts, the leaves turn a golden yellow or ochre and orange, the bare earth becomes visible again, perhaps even a small, carved piece of wood like in February, for the spirits of the earth are moving inside again. A violet amethyst can also draw our attention to these beings.

And then Martinmas is just around the corner: violet begins to cover the brown, a colour indicating inner reflection, looking after the inner light, as does the simple lantern with a candle shining inside. A piece of wood from a walk is symbolic of the dying process we increasingly experience, taking leave of life and matter.

And then, finally, the Advent period starts, a time of arrival: the clear, warm blue which many Old Masters have used to represent the cloak of Mary covers the table. We can often experience how the seasonal table grows unobtrusively in small steps; thus the mineral realm might appear in the first week, the plant realm in the second week, then the animal realm ... Or Mary travels a little further each day accompanied by an angel. If I do not wish to have any figurative representation at all, a new star, which previously took pride of place in the background, might be placed on the earth (cloth) each day. A large fir branch might lie on the cloth and each day a new little star hangs from it. Or perhaps a magnificent star just travels a little further each day towards the implied stable. The way in which I succeed in bringing the creation story to experience depends on how I deal with it inwardly; but here too I think it is very important not lavishly to draw on tradition without questioning why I am doing it. There are infinite opportunities to find the appropriate thing in the course of the year for oneself, one’s children or the children in one’s care. Repetition does a child good – but something that time after time is filled with life through my own effort also has a great effect.

Neither Waldorf deco nor altar

The creation of the seasonal table must not be rigid or dogmatic – the aim is to symbolise processes which are always in flux. The seasonal table is not a decorative piece of Waldorf education which acquires an altar-like status – the children are welcome to help create it. It is an image of my inner occupation with the seasons, their processes and the festivals embedded in them. If I merely copy model images it becomes “Waldorf kitsch”.


No comments

Add comment

* - required field