Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Festival of Candlemas

Sundays are a day of rest and renewal for my family. That was how I experienced Sundays growing up. We went to church in the morning. That was followed by a big breakfast and then an early big dinner ~ Sunday dinner. There was plenty of down time in between. It's always stayed with me, and I am happy for it.

I like to keep some spaciousness in my family's Sundays. One of the things I like to do is to quietly take some time to look ahead at the week, review what is coming, and make sure I have in place what I need, to be prepared for anything outside of the ordinary.

Ideally the meal plan is sketched out, our work is planned, and I know where everyone is going each day. This moment on Sunday gives me time to have a picture of the week ahead.

This week as I look ahead, I see the week brings three things that are out of the ordinary, three, well almost four, feasts or celebrations that all fall on February 2nd, which happens to be on Friday of this week. They are:
  • Groundhog Day
  • Imbolc
  • Candlemas
  • Brigid's Day
Groundhog Day is a fun little day that doesn't require too much forethought or preparation to celebrate.

Imbolc is the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox. It "crosses" the quarters (or seasons) of the year.

Brigid's Day ~ I wrote about this day here.

Candlemas is a church feast. Whenever we have the suffix ~ mas added to a word, we know it refers to a feast day. Besides Candlemas, there's Michaelmas, Martinmas, and Christmas too.

Sometimes Candlemas, Brigid's Day, Imbolc and Groundhog day are conflated.

I'll begin with Candlemas and come back with some reflections on the other celebrations over the next few days.

~ painting by Lodovico Caracci 
This feast has layers to contemplate. Candlemas is celebrated in the Catholic and Orthodox Church as the Feast of the Presentation at Church of the Blessed Mary, and is also known as the Feast of the Presentation of the Holy Child, or more popularly as Candlemas. It has its origins in what is known as the rite of the "churching of women," the return of a woman to the Church after 40 days of rest, after giving birth to a child. It signifies the return of Mary to the Church after giving birth to the Christ Child, along with the Presentation of the Child in the Church.

 In our busy modern world, the notion of convalescence is becoming obsolete. Women are encouraged to "do it all," which we can't, but that is another conversation. More traditional cultures honor the postpartum period as a time of rest and of nourishing both the mother and baby. This piece by Joyce Gallardo explores this very topic, here.

Was the churching of women a recognition of the importance of rest and slowing down after giving birth, or was it a banishment that needed "purification" of the fleshly body in order to re-enter the life of the Church?  It strikes me as rather odd that it was a question for men to expound on, rather than women. But the women were busy tending to daily life, so that the men could expound on such things. Ha!

Yet we know that the question whether a mother who had given birth recently should enter the church or not has been debated long before the eleventh century. The most prominent example is Pope Gregory the Great's letter to Augustine of Canterbury, as we find it in the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England. Augustine had asked among a number of other questions: 'how long after she has brought forth, may she come into the church? and then adds in the end: 'All which things are requisite to be known by the rude nation of the English.' Gregory answers that even if she came the very hour after giving birth she was not committing a sin, but rather forbidding her to come would turn the punishment she was bearing for the sin of Eve into a crime. But the Christian tradition is not clear and uniform on this question. It seems that Gregory remained an exception and traditions like those of the penitentials which strongly suggested the need for purification became more influential. In the fourth century Hippolytus records that a mother who had just given birth was to be seated among the catechumens. Emperor Leo in 460 forbade women to take communion within 40 days after the delivery, but did not count it as a grave sin, if they did in case of emergency [Stephens 1854, 1751f]. 

This comes from here.

As for the feast of Candlemas - this is a feast of initiation, of possibility, of light, of the old meeting the new and the old giving way to the new, the frozen earth giving way to the stirring of new life. This is why candles are blessed in churches on this day.

This is the time of year in which the light is growing brighter, the buds on the trees are beginning to swell, the birds seem to be singing more, and on some days the feeling of the return of warmth and sunlight is in the air.

We put up our Christmas tree up later than most, close to Christmas Eve. This has wonderful benefits and challenges too. Some years we keep the tree through January, with Candlemas as the final marker - the end to Christmastide. I like the word Christmastide. It feels like so much more than a singular day that has a make or break quality to it, with reverberations that last through the year, and eventually a lifetime. Christmastide makes me think of the tide of the sea that rolls in, pulsating with energy, and then rolls out, as seasons do. Each year bringing something new.

How does this all fit in with Waldorf education and life? This is a really good question. The 2nd of February is a significant day in the rhythm of the year, as it is the mid-point, a cross quarter day, one that falls smack in between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. We are six weeks from each of those turning points in the year. On February 2nd, we are as close to spring as we were to the winter solstice. After February 2nd, we are closer to the onset of spring that the onset of winter. It is a threshold day in the year.

In looking back, and wondering how this day came into celebration among Waldorf Home Educators, I think of Mrs. M, who started the Yahoo Group that inspired (and continues to inspire) so many Waldorf home educators, as the first to make something of the day, in the context of Waldorf education. You can find the Yahoo Group Waldorf Home Educators here. It's been quiet lately, or visit her Facebook group, the Magic of Waldorf to see what she is up to. She has celebrated with a Festival of the Bees at this time of year in the past. 

What are your thoughts on the rite of the churching of women? Is it in recognition of the need for women and child to rest after birth, or in disdain of the female body? Does it matter? What can it inspire within us today? I'd love to read your thoughts in the comments.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Storytelling with Young Children :: Waldorf Style

~ this is a piece I wrote for Rhythm of the Home in the Winter of 2010. As Rhythm of the Home is no more,  I am sharing this article here on my blog. This is exactly how it appeared on Rhythm of the Home. The text and photographs are my own, with the exception of the intro paragraph written by Heather Spedden Fontenot.
Storytelling fosters imagination and creativity like little else can, and it is a very important aspect of Waldorf education that transports children into magical worlds and far away places. Storytelling can often be daunting for parents and teachers alike, so today we sit down with Lisa Boisvert Mackenzie to hear her thoughts on the art of the story, and the many ways we can bring it into our daily lives. ~ Heather Spedden Fontenot

Storytelling is life. Waldorf education is a live education, it takes place between human beings, this is why one does not see textbooks, CD players or videos in Waldorf classrooms. Storytelling brings pictures to children of life, of what it means to be human, of how we can serve one another.

is about making pictures in our minds, learning through pictures, through imitation of the pictures, of the gestures, of the movements brought through the storyteller and the stories that are told. When a child sees a pre-formed picture of a story in a book or on a screen, the image is made; there is no room for the child’s imagination to create the picture.

Storytelling provides a strong foundation for literacy. Literacy begins with the experience of being with another human being who speaks to the child. Very young children watch our mouths as we form words. Stories told by humans rich with language, rhythm, and repetition spark a love of language and a lasting literacy.

Storytelling conveys rich language, full sentences and an extensive vocabulary to children.

Human connection is strengthened through storytelling particularly when we tell stories of our own childhood or that of the child’s grandparents.
Right now approaching Saint Nicholas Day, I am telling stories of Saint Nicholas from Christine Natale of the life of Saint Nicholas. Favorite family chapter books are Mary’s Little Donkey, The Elves and the Shoemaker, The Gingerbread Boy.

After the snow has fallen and the ice on the lake is frozen, and the north wind blows hard and cold and dry, I like to tell the story of the little brown duck, Shingebiss. It is said to be an old Chippewa tale.

Upon lighting the Advent candle, we recite this verse:

Winter is dark
Yet each tiny spark

Brightens the way
To Christmas Day

Shine little light
And show us the way

To the great light of Christmas Day

A Chubby Little Snowman

Here’s a little verse that is lovely done with finger puppets; one for the snowman, one for the bunny. A silk over the hands makes it even better. It can be done as a finger play as well and acted out by the children.

A chubby little snowman
Had a carrot nose
Along came a bunny
And what do you suppose?
That hungry little bunny was looking for some lunch
He saw that snowman’s carrot nose
And went nibble, nibble, crunch!

That chubby little bunny hopped into the woods.
He wiggled his ears as a good bunny should.
He hopped by a squirrel, he hopped by a tree.
He hopped by a bird and he hopped by me.
He stared at the squirrel. He stared at the tree.
He stared at the bird and he made faces at me.

Be sure to put your thumbs to your ear lobes and encourage some fun face-making with this one.

I spend much of my time with children who span the ages of two to fifteen years of age.

With the youngest children, in the Morning Garden, I tell simple nature stories about Mama and Papa Redbird and Squirrel Nutkin, creatures who live in the garden and trees, and whose antics we observe daily.

I often tell a story of a small child while creating the puppet from a silk square, with a rolled ball of wool roving for the head, and then I tie it at the wrists. The child awakens, goes outside for a walk, encounters the animals in the yard, says good morning, rambles about, returns home for lunch and a nap.

In autumn, we have so many wonderful stories to tell. I like to weave in many of the nature tales from Suzanne Down’s Autumn Tales and expand upon them with figures and activities that connect to the stories. Pumpkins, apples and squash grace our seasonal table at this time of year and sometimes an acorn child peeps out from the “garden.”

Something very special I have done with my own children is to reverse their names and create a royal character who has daily adventures. We have two brothers, Prince Sugna and Prince Nacnud. Their parents are kind and gentle rulers of a large kingdom. They have adventures in the kingdom with their dog and cats and always return at the end of the afternoon to the royal kitchen for a cup of tea and a cookie.

I also tell stories in the car, at bedtime, in the afternoon, with seasonal puppet shows and finger puppets.

Often we begin before birth, in talking to the child that is to come. I had a name for my youngest for two years before he was conceived. I knew he was coming. I felt his presence and spoke to him. With my oldest, I gave him a womb name and spoke to him and wrote to him. His dad told stories to my belly.

Sometimes women will hum or sing spontaneously in labor. This is instinctive, the mother’s voice and movement is the story, the beginning of the story telling.

To begin storytelling with a toddler, tell a little story of daily life, focus on the description of the doing, the movement, use rhythm and repetition in speech, the rabbit went hippity hop, hippety hop, the wings fluttered, the boy climbed and climbed, use movement and repetition. Children love to hear the same stories over and over again.

Sometimes yes, with a little puppet story, I use props, puppets, silk, bits of logs, maybe stones or seashells. I use wool roving to create very simple puppets: butterflies, rabbits, an owl. I use very simple felt finger puppets of animals as well as standing puppets and marionettes for more elaborate stories.

You can make little felt finger puppets for the children. Especially loved seemed to be bees and baby chicks. Puppets and simple figures create archetypal images for the child to live into, they enliven the world of the child, a silk becomes a landscape, a pinecone becomes a tree

It begins before birth when the children come to us with a story, their story. We are part of their story as much as they are part of our story. Our task is to let it unfold, unhindered, and remove obstacles, for them and for us.

Children are full of stories from the first little sing-song chatter to themselves while they play to the more formed performances they might produce. The fewer images they see in books and screen, the more room in their mind to image-make of their own imagination.

Yes, it echoes the elements of nature and the cosmos. What is happening outside? The days are darkening now, the trees are bare, the squirrels are busy hiding nuts and we are looking within to find our own little lights. The stories reflect the rhythm of nature. In the warm weather, I often tell stories outside.

Finger play helps the children use and enliven their fingers. Young children are in a process of embodiment, of coming into their bodies. Finger and toe play helps them move into those far reaches of their body. Nowadays machines do so much work that was once done by hand. Children have fewer opportunities to use their fingers; finger play is a fun way to foster healthy development of the hands as is tiptoeing and stomping for the feet.

A fun game for the toes is for the child to pick up marbles with his toes and drop them into a basket or basin. The child might pick marbles up from a basin of lavender water and drop them into another basin with her toes. Use a scarf in the same way. Rudolf Steiner also recommended that children write with toes of their dominant foot when learning to write, that it supports the development of handwriting.

When I lived on remote islands in the South Pacific, I noticed that the local people were so adept with the use of their hands and toes, in weaving, in climbing, in cutting, in preparing food and creating mats and roof tops. It is remarkable how little we develop the hand and feet.

Observe the natural world. Look at birds, squirrels, cows, how do they move? Look at their gesture, how does a rabbit hop? Observe what is happening outdoors. Set up a bird feeder and create a cozy perch from which to watch. Make some simple animal puppets from felt. Bring those gestures with consciousness to the finger play and hand gestures.

Use a little rhyme, make it up.

Fingerplays can ease transitions, during car trips and in the grocery store line. Rhythmic verse and repetition is reassuring for children and build neural pathways in the brain. Most of all, it’s to relax, have fun, be playful.

A story can present archetypes to children that open the doors of possibility, that kindle the imagination, that stir the child to action. Storytelling can be healing, can soothe hurt feelings, mend conflicts and inspire a child to good behavior. Stories can be assuring that the world is good, and that in the end, goodness triumphs over evil.

A child who has an adult that tells her stories and plays lap games and sings songs is blessed with a connection to a human being and to generations of human beings who once transmitted all stories through human communication. Storytelling fosters human connection, connection to the natural world and even to the cosmos. It fosters the healthy development of a human being.


Lisa is a Waldorf Early Childhood Educator, Mom to two boys, homeschooling one of them with Waldorf education. She has had a child of her own in early childhood for the past fifteen years. Currently she tends a home-based anthroposophical nursery program and is writing monthly guides on on the elements of early childhood for parents and home programs celebrating the sacred in the everyday. She can be found at her blog, or the group blog for Waldorf Homeschoolers that she founded.

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