Waldorf's winter light garden glows with silent tradition

In the darkness, pupils and teachers reach out to plant a luminous gift


December 05, 2004|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Staff

Every year it begins with a knock on the door, followed by a long moment of anticipation. When the teacher finally nods, the children enter a familiar room transformed by darkness. With the windows covered, the only light in the movement arts studio flickers from a few candles. One by one, the students file past a freshly constructed winter garden, a spiraling path of greenery that leads to a place of light guarded by a quiet angel from the eighth grade -- another piece of magic. Along the way, the children hear the tinkling voices of glockenspiels, sounds that summon old melodies and simpler times.

It is the first week of December, a time when the students at a private school in north Baltimore observe their annual rite of this season: Creating a winter garden of light at the darkest time of year.

Over a two-day period, the roughly 200 pupils at the Waldorf School visit the same studio, one class at a time, kindergarten through eighth grade, to take turns planting candles of light. Year after year, their ritual unfolds the same way.

First, you follow your teacher into the dark. You sit quietly, smelling the sweet scent of pine while your eyes adjust to the dimness and your ears open to the music. Then you listen to a story.

This year, the second-grade teacher tells her children about a little girl who travels the earth and the seas hoping to touch a real star. The sixth-graders hear about the contrary donkey that carried the Virgin Mary to Bethlehem. The eighth-graders, who are the oldest in this school, listen to a parable: A father gives his seven children a bundle of seven sticks to break. When they cannot, he shows them that by binding together, each one gains the strength of all.

After the story, it is time to enter the winter garden. Each person makes the journey alone. After one angel in a white tunic hands you an unlit globed tea light, you follow the spiraling path as it guides you, like a sheltering arm, toward the center where the main angel stands by a tree stump, keeping watch over a long burning candle. This angel lights your globe. Then you retrace your steps, stopping to place your candle anywhere you want.

The rules are that you must receive and plant your light in silence. Teacher Noris Friedman reminds you that the winter garden is "a gift for the eyes and the ears, not for the mouth."

It is also a gift for the heart: A way to celebrate the coming solstice, to illuminate the darkness, to feel the tug of nature on the human spirit.

Every year the winter garden provides a welcome break from regular studies.

Each person in your grade must help the garden grow. If someone is sick, the teacher will place a candle for him or her. The winter garden is not finished until everyone has planted a bloom of light. And no one leaves the room until all spend a moment reflecting upon this work.

The Waldorf School uses an educational philosophy developed by the late Rudolf Steiner to "teach the whole child, the heart and the hands -- as well as the head." The rituals of the winter garden emphasize the "non-denominational essence" of Christmas and other holidays occurring near the solstice: The search for a spiritual light, for a sense of commitment and hope, that can be shared with the world.

Seventh-grade teacher Elizabeth Hall says the ceremony reinforces her own thoughts about cyclical patterns of life.

"What I often take from this is the notion of going from the summer to the winter," she says. "Of going from a larger, outward time, at a place like the beach, to an inward, tighter circle of time with family."

The garden reflects many touches of home. Teachers and parents create the spiral from boughs of pine and cedar. They also bring holly and other greens as well as tiny treasures to decorate the path. Some objects, like shells, geodes and turtle shells, speak to the creativity of nature. Others, like handmade dolls and intricate carvings, reflect human artistry.

The garden feels like a variation on a Christmas tree, one that lights up differently depending upon what class is passing through. Hall points out that the youngest children, who are often fearful in the dark, tend to clump their candles around those of their teachers. Middle schoolers may plant lights in the outermost reaches of the spiral ... or feel compelled to fill in gaps left by others.

Hall says the gardens offer "light portraits" of their creators. The older the students are, she observes, the more evenly they place their lights. Which is another way of saying that just as you're getting it right, it's time to leave.

This year's winter garden ceremony seemed "more special," "more grown-up" and "more emotional" for eighth-graders Celia Friedman and Jillian Skalky. The 14-year-old girls were quite aware that they would soon be following more mainstream educational paths through high school.

On their final walk through the garden, each chose a memorable spot to plant her light. Friedman's last candle illumined a glistening conch shell. Skalky gently put hers next to a gnome, a star and a sand dollar.

And when all the rest of the lights were placed, the graduating class stood together one last time to admire what they had created: A fellowship of candles and unbreakable promise.

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