This side and the other side of the equator

By Sven Saar, February 2023

The equator separates the northern from the southern hemisphere. At the same time, however, it also connects them with each other. What does it mean when images created in one culture are transferred to another? Do they connect or do they divide?

Picture: © photocase_19262

For people north or south of the tropics, the passage of the seasons is one of the longest rhythms we consciously experience. In childhood in general, and especially in Waldorf schools with their emphasis on the yearly festivals, the cultivation of this awareness is an invaluable gift – after all, it allows growing human beings to feel at home in the temporal structure of the earth and especially in the social, cultural and geographical space that surrounds them.

In Central Europe, at the beginning of the school year, a breath of August warmth still wafts through the playground at the end of summer, but the mood is quite different from before the holidays. In many Waldorf schools, the new class one pupils pass through a gate decorated with sunflowers. The flowery welcome is practised all over the world: it signals to the children that the adults welcoming them value this moment and the new human beings they are meeting in a very special way. What a fitting image for their biographical situation: like the sunflower, their soul was allowed to blossom large and radiantly in the kindergarten years, which were characterised by heartfelt warmth. The seeds, delicately nurtured, are already slumbering in the children. Over the next few weeks, the flowers may wither – the memory of kindergarten will gradually fade – but the seeds will thrive until one day they detach from the flower head. Now they have fully arrived at school, and then it’s October.

Outside, the wind sometimes blows uncomfortably, and at school, in keeping with age, the focus is on inner values. The courage needed to stand up to the forces of darkness plays a major role in many stories about Saint Michael. Some schools organise a large-scale work campaign in the school grounds: bushes have to be cut back and the summer’s overgrowth removed so that the autumnal inner clarity is also emphasised on the outside. Fires are lit and thorny briers are cut, and at the end everyone enjoys the warm soup and the feeling of having cleared something together.

Recently I celebrated Michaelmas in a school in the Philippines: here we called it the Festival of the Will. What kind of images are needed if the light-dark or warmth-frost metaphors cannot be experienced in nature? Are Michaelic characteristics different at the equator? I was struck by how comparatively easy people have it in the temperate zones, especially in the northern hemisphere: we see the rebirth of nature in spring and the inner reflection when the nights grow longer in autumn. What changes in the southern hemisphere? How do you celebrate Christmas appropriately at the height of summer? Australian shop windows are sprayed with artificial snow and bulky wrapped Santas sweat under their plastic beards. We realise: the images we are familiar with are out of place here! If nature does not do us the favour of adequately accompanying our inner experience, the inner creation of images must be pursued more intensively and also more originally. There is still a lot of pioneering work to be done here, incidentally also in terms of festivals that are non-European in origin. Couldn’t the Indian Holi festival, Ramadan concluding with Eid, the Chinese New Year also become part of the festive culture here, across religions?

I am not convinced that the images and traditions of the yearly festivals have their origin entirely in nature, even if Celtic or pagan rituals are often invoked as an argument. What they all have in common is that they celebrate the return of congregation, and at the same time something that is peculiar to the human being – the inner work on ourselves.

In all cultures of the world, people were and are striving to educate themselves culturally and morally. They have developed religions and rituals for this purpose and many of them make use of natural phenomena such as the seasons, the animal and plant world, because they give the inner intentions a pictorial character. Children in particular can immerse themselves in such images and often draw on them for a lifetime.

Originally, Hallowe’en, the eve of All Saints’ Day, was a Celtic festival (Samhain) commemorating the deceased, who on this night draw particularly close to the realm of the living. The pumpkin masks in the window served to scare off the evil spirits, for whom the veil to the earthly world has also become thinner. The basic gesture, however, is to honour the deceased. With children, you can plant bulbs for the coming year at this time and use the image of the dried-up bulb to teach them how people make the decisive difference through their actions: If I leave the bulb in the cupboard, it stays dead. If I plant it in the earth, I give it the chance to develop and to express what is slumbering in it – a durable image of our engagement with those people who are no longer on earth and one of many possibilities to connect earth life and soul experience with each other.

Advent at last! Waldorf parents are familiar with this: “When does the Advent spiral start? We are far too late! Will you get the kids ready? Where are my glasses? Have you seen the car keys? All the parking spaces will definitely be gone by now!”

Even if the journey to school was still bad tempered and stressful until everyone was seated on the narrow benches, in this intimate hour, with the gathering light, the quiet songs and sound of the lyre, the burdens fall from the soul and a new breath is found. Adults need a few minutes longer to find inner peace. Children dive right in: I eagerly await the moment when I am finally allowed to carry my candle into the middle of the spiral, then cautiously – just don’t drop it! – I find the right place for it and carefully place it in the earthly green. I go out with a feeling of relief and experience even more how the others do the same, and again and again I look at my own little light in the midst of all the others – I and all of you, we are one, and we shine into the darkness! This sequence of images sinks deep into the soul!

In Europe, Candlemas (Seven Sleepers’ Day) and the equinox (beginning of spring) set further accents in the further course of winter. The little ones sow wheat in small pots on Ash Wednesday and watch during the fasting period of Lent – actually rather half-hearted compared to Ramadan – how the green sprouts push their way up through the soil crumb: something new emerges from invisibility.

From about class six onwards, a different awareness is part of the experience of the yearly cycle. If the young child is still completely immersed in the rituals and has enjoyed the world of pictures, active understanding is added in middle school: what does Easter have to do with the position of the moon? Why does carnival start on a different date every year? Here the equatorial countries are to be envied: at a Brazilian carnival parade you can wear as little as you want – you are guaranteed not to freeze. “Mum, why can’t we celebrate carnival in the summer? I don’t always want to go as a Viking!”

After Easter, summer approaches in leaps and bounds here and nature changes daily. Many class fives keep individual tree diaries, and now there is a lot to observe – not only the growth of buds and leaves, but also the reawakening of wildlife. The human gaze, in winter still focused on inner values through songs and poems, begins to turn outwards. This important, balance-creating swing between centre and periphery is also facilitated for us hemispherics by the changing seasons – the closer to the respective poles, the clearer. Natural warmth draws us humans out into the open, and this tendency marries itself to the curriculum. Class four explores the school’s surroundings in local history, class five travels through Germany together for the first time, class six can get geological laws under their hiking boots, and class seven has chemistry week in the playground: combustion processes are not so well demonstrated in the classroom.

The St. John’s festival around the summer solstice is a real highlight for the school community in many European Waldorf schools. The celebration begins, for example, with an evening picnic to which all families contribute something and where they meet across classes. Afterwards, summer games and dances will take place on the grass. On any other day, the little ones would already long be in bed. Today, however, the actual programme is just beginning: everyone gathers in the playground and individual classes recite poems or perform circus tricks. Then a story is told in the twilight and around half past nine a long procession of people, led by torches, makes its way back to the grass, where the oldest class is already standing around the bonfire, reciting a saying and then lighting the fire together from all sides. The flames blaze brightly, the sounds of voices and instruments rise into the summer night, and later parents, teachers and the older pupils will jump over the smouldering fire. Nights like that are not forgotten!

After Midsummer, the teachers’ everyday life – or at least their weekends – is characterised by a human-made rhythm – that of carefully and lovingly written school reports. This is also a recurring ritual, filled with life, because you never write the same thing. Every child has changed in the past year and yet has still remained true to themselves. What has been revealed in them, and above all what is still dormant and wants to unfold, flows into the individual verse for each child: it will accompany the child for a whole year, and ideally the teachers will have come to it themselves through contemplative concentration. In this way, people invent completely original, new festive moments, independent of the course of the year and the climate zone: in creative devotion to the development of the children entrusted to them, an individually valid, lasting and true image is created.

Sven Saar, born 1966, was a class and upper school teacher in England and Germany for thirty years and now works full-time in teacher training as founder of the Waldorf Institute in England, in Germany, Australia and many Asian countries.