By Christine Natale
“Too Christian for the Pagans and too Pagan for the Christians!”
The first point I would like to make is that I truly believe that “school” and the “school community” by extension, should be year-round. The “summer off” is based on long outmoded needs of the agrarian society of the far past. With few children needing to help on the family farm and many homes in which both parents are working full time, it is not really a viable schedule. I would prefer to see the year divided into four quarters of eleven weeks “on” and two weeks “off” at Festival time. A two week break would be enough to allow teachers to both rest and to work on preparing their lessons for the upcoming quarter. It would allow the children to rest, too while avoiding the lassitude that often comes from the too-long summer break. For those who feel that the children need such a long summer “break from academics” may I say that if the activities of the “normal school year are that draining and stressful, perhaps that is where the problem actually lies. The thing is, school should not be only about academics! If it maintained a living, healthy balance, it should be enlivening and enriching all year round. If it is so draining that we need an eight week "break" something is wrong to begin with.
All that being said, let’s look at St. John’s Tide and explore its potential for fun and benefit in the round of the year. Few Waldorf schools (that I am aware of) hold St. John’s Bonfire nights. This is most likely due to the reality that with the school disbanded for the summer, the school community has dispersed as well. If there are school communities that do celebrate St. John’s (and I hope that there are!) they may have a core of parents deeply interested in the more “religious” aspect of Anthroposophy and Waldorf Education.
Before we go further, I would like to clarify my use of the word “religion”, especially in connection with Waldorf Education. Neither Anthroposophy nor Waldorf Education are based in or connected with any formal religious group or dogma. I have written another article clarifying this matter to a greater extent than I will here. I often say that Waldorf Education is “too Christian for the Pagans and too Pagan for the Christians!” To discover what I mean by that, you can access the article here:
Religion in Waldorf Education
How Waldorf Education and its spiritual ideas fit in with your family’s belief systems and choices in child raising is completely up to you and how much time and effort you are willing to spend to explore the insights of Rudolf Steiner and those who have spent their lives studying and working with his body of work.
With these considerations in mind, let’s re-acquaint ourselves with the traditional Pagan and Christian aspects of St. John’s Tide.
Midsummer’s Night Dream
Of course, if you have the blessing of being able to go (and to take your children) to a live production (or even better, to be in one!) by all means, do so! The play captures all of the magic and romance of the most magical night of the year – Midsummer’s Eve.
Midsummer’s Eve is the evening of the Summer Solstice – the turning point of the year and the longest day and shortest night of the Northern Hemisphere. It is the mirror opposite of Christmas or the Winter Solstice. (You will find I mix the Pagan and Christian rather indiscriminately from here on!)
St. John’s Eve
While it traditionally falls on June 23, with St. John’s Day being June 24, it is a little “off” from the astronomical Summer Solstice, just as Christmas is a few days away from the Winter Solstice. Nevertheless, they both relate and create a “tide” or season of the festival over a few days.
The Feast of St. John the Baptist is his supposed birthday. John was Jesus’ cousin and a close spiritual companion. John’s mother, Elizabeth is said in the Bible to be Mary’s cousin. I like to think of her as Mary’s aunt. I’m not sure if my hypothesis could ever be substantiated but I like to think that Elizabeth and Anna, Mary’s mother were sisters and that Elizabeth was very close to Mary as a little girl, especially due to the fact that Elizabeth had no children of her own. Mary went to see Elizabeth pretty much as soon as she learned of her own pregnancy. Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John. In the womb, John “leapt up” in recognition of Jesus and made his mother aware of the holy status of Mary and “the fruit of her womb, Jesus.”
Mary stays with Elizabeth until just before the birth of John. In my imagination, I think of Elizabeth helping to prepare Mary for her own delivery but wanting to avoid exposing Mary to the actual experience beforehand. I have lots of other Imaginations of the story, but that is a subject for another thesis.
In any case, John is born and in the Gnostic and Apochryphal traditions the two boys were partly raised together. John becomes a “forerunner” of the Christ who is about to incarnate into Jesus. He becomes a “voice in the wilderness” urging people to change and to prepare for this cosmic event. The Baptism of John was a process in which he was able to hold a person under the water just until the moment that is said to happen when a person almost drowns, until they see “their life pass before their eyes” in the panorama that Rudolf Steiner explains we all experience just after our death. Due to his spiritual development and clairvoyance, John is able to follow the soul to this point and to resuscitate the person in time. After seeing their own life from the spiritual point of view, the person is “reborn” and filled with a sense of wanting to change and improve themselves.
A Question of Balance
It is this moment of self-awareness that is the fulcrum of our lives. It is the recognition that we are not perfect and will never be, but that we can always strive to balance our excesses and weaknesses. The shy, reticent person can decide in personal freedom to do a bold thing, such as taking a role in a play. The bossy person can (at least temporarily) take a back seat and let someone else shine for a change. These characteristics are lovingly and humorously portrayed by the peasant workers who decide to put on a play in honor of the wedding of their king, Theseus in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
An athletic person can read a book or go to a symphony. The bookworm can decide to participate in a game of backyard baseball. We all have activities that we prefer and shine at and we all have areas in which we are less capable and less enthusiastic.
In Waldorf Education, teachers are asked to learn to read the “riddle of the child.” This means to get to know each child well enough over time to really begin to perceive what he or she is about. What has this child come into the world with? How does this child express himself? What are her areas of weakness that need a bit of strengthening? How do we turn the choleric tendency to boss and bully into creative and compassionate leadership? How do we bring the sanguine little social butterfly down to earth long enough to learn a bit of math? How do we help to keep the melancholic child from wallowing in self-pity and to turn this to empathy and a desire to help relieve the inner and outer pain of others? And how do we “spice up” the life of the sweet phlegmatic child who loves to daydream and inspire her to take up the work and discipline of accomplishing some of those daydreams?
We don’t need to be something other than what we are, but we need to learn how to put it to good use for ourselves, for others and for the world. In the gentlest sense, perhaps this is the meaning of the call to “Repent” of St. John. The call to access our higher self for the good of mankind.
There is also the cosmic picture contained in the words of St. John, “I must decrease so that He may increase.” Which carries the inner gesture of a scales.
Rudolf Steiner cites Uriel as the Archangel of the Summer season and festival. He describes Uriel as holding scales. Perhaps these are the Scales of Judgment or maybe just the Scales of Balance. I have not been able at this time to find the exact reference from Steiner. I believe it is to be found in “The Four Seasons and the Archangels” lecture series.
Wikipedia has some good background information and relates Uriel (meaning the Light of God) to John the Baptist through the Apocrypha.
And there is another short descriptive web page here:
The Archangel Michael is often depicted as carrying the Scales of Justice, also. Both Uriel and Michael are represented with swords of flame at various times. To my understanding, the Balance that the Archangel Michael is most concerned with is the balance of the soul at the “Final Judgment” whereas the Balance of Uriel is more of an earthly, daily testing of the soul with a view toward the daily possibility of change.
In connection with the theme of Balance, here is a lovely tale by Tolstoy of the Baker and the Loaf. Unfortunately, after hours of searching the internet (and not daring to face the boxes in my garage) I have been unsuccessful in finding it for you, so I will have to re-tell it as best I remember. If any kind reader recognizes it in its altered form and can send me a link or at least the correct title, I would appreciate it.
The Loaf, or How the Baker Got Into Heaven
By Leo Tolstoy as remembered after thirty years by Christine Natale
Once there was a village baker who was known to be a famous miser. He was an excellent baker who made a very good living but he was never known to part with a penny he didn’t absolutely have to. He gave fair weight but not a crumb extra. He made it very clear that he would rather feed his pigs with the stale bread and crusts than to give them away for free. Children and beggars gave up all hope of ever receiving a morsel from him out of the kindness of his heart. As a matter of fact, the less charitable of villagers sometimes swore that he simply didn’t have a heart at all and that was the explanation they accepted. All except one.
There was one itinerant beggar who traveled through this village on a regular basis. He was a true rascal and scamp who had chosen a long time ago to live with as little concern and responsibility as the grasshopper of summer. Although a rake and a rogue, the beggar was of basically jolly disposition and his good humor kept him in enough beer and sausages to keep body and soul together. Nevertheless, when he came to town his favorite game was to tease and torment the miserly baker. He would stand just outside the baker’s door and plead and whine and wheedle for a piece of bread. Small crowds would gather to listen to him heckle and to have a bit of a laugh at the baker’s expense. Usually, the session would end with the baker slamming the door and retiring into the back part of his bakery until the beggar tired and went off to the tavern to be treated to a beer by the amused villagers.
One day it happened that the beggar arrived on the main road through the village at the same time that the baker happened to be making a delivery. What an opportunity! And the beggar took it to full advantage. He followed the baker all over town, teasing and tormenting him to “have pity on a poor beggar in the name of Christ.” At last, the baker could maintain his composure no longer. Just before he was able to reach the sanctuary of his bakery, he whirled around and threw a small loaf, hitting the beggar in the head.
“Be off with you, thou devil spawn!” roared the baker as he ducked into his doorway. But the beggar roared back with laughter, joined by the villagers come to see the show.
“I knew I would have it off you, one way or the other!” yelled the beggar as he brushed off the dust from the loaf and carried it like a trophy back to the tavern.
Well, as fate would have it, the baker passed away not but a few months after this. He found himself guided to a high place and told to stand in front of a kind of heavenly tribunal as his deeds on Earth were weighed to see which direction he should ultimately take. The baker became rather uncomfortable as he saw some selfish and disobedient deeds of his childhood placed on the wrong end of a huge pair of scales. Luckily, the scales only dipped a small fraction. But they dipped a bit more at the weight of several more significant misdeeds of his youth. The baker really began to sweat, though as he saw again and again scenes of his selfishness that continued through his life, all the way up to the end. By this time, the negative side of the scale was practically to the bottom and so far there had not been one good deed to place on his account on the good side. The angels and archangels consulted there records in hopes of finding one that they may have overlooked, always wanting to give a person the benefit of the doubt, but nothing showed up. When it truly looked as if the verdict would be undoubted for the poor baker, a shining Child walked silently through the hallowed assembly. From a pocket in his pure but simple gown, he produced – the loaf of bread that the baker had thrown at the beggar! The Child stepped up to the scales and placed the loaf on the empty pan. To the amazement of the baker and the wonder of the heavenly hosts, the scales began to move. The side with the loaf began to slowly sink lower and lower until it dipped below the side piled high with the baker’s faults and failings. When it stopped, the baker was declared balanced to the good and allowed to remain in Heaven. The baker himself was so astonished that he couldn’t even speak. But the Child came to him and took the baker’s hand to lead him through the gates.
“You see,” said the Child, “A good deed done, no matter the intention, is greater than the weight of sin.”
The Archangel Uriel is also deeply connected with the Earth in its mineral state. He sends rays of light and warmth into the Mineral Kingdom which manifest most clearly in the form of shining crystals.
Here are a few more tidbits of information on Archangel Uriel from the following internet site. Deeper study is certainly recommended if one is truly interested in getting to know this lesser known but extremely important spiritual Being.
“Colin Wilson describes encounters between Uriel and the 16th century scholar, Dr. John Dee. Dee's scrying assistant, Edward Kelley, saw a cherub in a crystal ball. Dee identified the cherub from his Kabbalistic knowledge as "Uriel, the angel
of light." Later, in 1582, Dee had a vision of a child angel floating outside the window, holding a crystal egg. Again he identified this with Uriel. Wilson claims that the crystal egg is preserved in the British Museum. [Colin Wilson. The Occult: A History. Random House, 1971, pp. 273-4]. Whether Uriel appears as a child, a powerful man, or a woman of regal bearing (as the artistic depictions show below), the archangel continues to command the imagination, reverence, and devotion of people around the world.”
”Uriel is often referred to as the Great Archangel of the Earth (the number assigned to the Earth is 4, and 4 is also the number of the elements and 4 the number of the cardinal directions--444). One contemporary account describes the archangel thus: "He (or she) is the keeper of the mysteries which are deep within the planet, underground and in the hidden depths of the living world." Additional information is provided along with the artwork reproduced below.”
”The feast day of the Archangel Uriel is celebrated July 28. Uriel's influence is believed to peak during the summer months. According to Corinne Heline: "The beautiful Uriel stands guardian over the activities of the summer. The ripening of grain and the floodtide of blossom are under his guidance. He also supervises the Nature Spirits, those fascinating little sprites who inhabit the elements of earth, air, fire and water, and who lend so much to the beautification of all nature. The highest initiatory teachings belonging to the New Age... are under the direction of Uriel." [Corinne Heline. The Blessed Virgin Mary. New Age Press, 1971, p. 110.]”
protect and look after rivers,
their waters we drink,
life springs up from them;
make grass sprout for cattle,
make man yield bread out of the land,
wine to enliven his heart,
oil and food to give him force.
[This beautiful invocation was translated from the original Spanish by Pedro Pablo Parrado of Bogota, Colombia.]
If you are fortunate enough to live in a community of people who are interested in understanding and re-enlivening the traditional festivals of the year, whether from a Pagan or Christian background (or both!), the first place to start is to get together and ask if anyone has personal experiences celebrating Midsummer’s Eve or St. John’s Eve. Each group can feel free to develop their own celebrations in whatever way suits the community members. Of course, having a safe, open area for a reasonable size bonfire is important. All safety precautions must be taken such as having both water and sand available for putting out any fire that wants to escape its prescribed circle. At least one or two people should be designated fire guardians – who will be watchful and responsible for every aspect of the fire throughout the night.
The participants, including children, should tie back long hair and not wear diaphanous clothing when celebrating in the fire area. Fairy garb can be donned for play and play-acting in neighboring field or woods, though! Even with fire guardians, parents should remain aware of their children and vigilant whenever they are near the fire circle. Ideally, there should be a circle of sizable stones directly around the fire and another circle of stones, logs, stumps or other seating a few feet further out for the gathering. The children need to be told ahead of time that they are not to go past this circle toward the fire. Additionally, in this year of record droughts, especially in the south US, please choose your location very carefully and be aware of permits, etc.. A beach or lakefront location may be good if it is allowed. The bonfire doesn’t have to be much bigger than a campfire. In Europe they are often huge, but it isn’t necessary. There are many large contained firepits available that may do very well. Whatever venue you choose, carefully go over all safety issues well before hand. Keep away from or clear out all brush and dead timber in the area. Soak the area with water if possible. Create rings of stones or logs and sand between to prevent the “jumping” of sparks. Have a fire extinguisher or two available, in addition to the water and sand. Check with the weather bureau regarding prevailing winds and please put safety first at every step! If a real fire is not possible due to drought or other conditions, perhaps the community can come up with a creative representation of fire, maybe a painted circular canvas screen with lighting in the middle.
Besides the fire (and of course, good weather!) the next main ingredients are food and music!! Community pot luck is always a favorite with emphasis on berries and fresh late spring produce. This is the time to bring out all of our favorite campfire songs! Hopefully, there are community members who can organize this and guide the singing. Old British and American folk songs are great as well as music from all around the world that the community members can bring and share.
Drama is also fantastic if at all possible. Of course, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” would be the number one choice whole or selections, performed by adults and teens. Since it is a long play, I would suggest “Jack in the Beanstalk” as a play or puppet play for the younger children earlier in the evening before the bonfire gets started.
Games are essential, as well. There are traditional “picnic” games, “new age” games and perhaps the group can create some new ones as well. Dividing the children into age groups such as 5 to 8, 9 to 13 and 14+ is always helpful to avoid squabbles as much as possible and to provide age appropriate challenges. For obvious reasons, only 14 + should be allowed to jump the bonfire (after it has died down).
Here are a few ideas that I have “dreamed up” for some St. John’s fun:
I love glitter – copious amounts of glitter – but glitter should never be thrown in the air. The tiny metallic bits can scratch eyes and cause other safety problems. Still, little fairies need fairy dust, don’t you think? Wouldn’t it be fun to get a lot of the “sanding” sugar used in baking, the large crystal kind, either pre-colored or color ahead of time. It is crystalline enough to “glitter” a bit in the firelight. What about those little pot-bellied parmesan cheese shakers with the large holes? They can be purchased very cheaply from restaurant supply companies locally or online. Fill them with pink, yellow and blue “fairy dust” ahead of time and give them to the little fairies in your group to sprinkle on people. Don’t tell them that it is sugar and watch them gradually figure it out. Yes, I know many people don’t prefer to give their children refined sugar, but much of it will probably end up on the ground.
Those round, sometimes garish plastic kiddie pools are very inexpensive. Depending on the number of younger children expected, two, four or even more could be placed in proximity to the fire area. Not too close but close enough to also serve as good fire extinguishing material if necessary. For each two, fill one with water and one with sand. Sand or earth could be built up around the outside and covered with green leafy things to hide the plastic. The purpose of play is obvious but with a twist. It would be lovely to get lots of assorted polished rocks and crystals (also available fairly inexpensively online) and bury them in the sand ahead of time. Before opening up the area for play, tell the children that the gnomes may have left treasures in the sand for them to find. A caveat for “treasure hunts” – set a limit for how many each child may find and keep (one, two or three) and that when they have found their limit, they leave the fairy beach and bring them to some teens or adults who have little “treasure bags” for them to hold the jewels in. Without limits, some treasure hunts become a bit unfair with some children getting unlimited amounts and others getting none.
Again, before the festivities, build three “Fairy Bridges” – sturdy and safely built balancing beams. The first one, one foot off the ground, the second one, two feet and the third, three feet. Get two each of three sizes of buckets. Make three balance bars with notches to hold the buckets on opposite ends. Fill one bucket with water and the other with a balanced weight of sand. Put a candle in the sand. Let each age group take turns walking the balance beam with the buckets. If water spills or the candle goes out, they have to start again. When each person reaches the other end successfully, they are given a prize. I think a small flashlight that can be worn like a necklace would be great. These are also very inexpensive through party supply stores and online. Later, they can be used to see song sheets for the sing-alongs, etc. A little bit of plastic now and then isn’t going to hurt anybody!
And So – To Bed!
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Act V, Scene I