The Meaning of Michaelmas

A treasured fall tradition in many Waldorf schools, including our own, Michaelmas is an ancient festival whose central message remains relevant across the centuries. It speaks to us of human potential, of fear, of courage in the face of fear, and of the possibility for transformation. Now as ever, there is much to trouble us, to tug at our attention, to cause us to lose sleep, to make us fear for our children’s futures. It can be challenging to keep those fears in perspective as we go about our daily lives. That perspective however, is exactly what is needed.

Michaelmas gives our fears a face, in the form of a dragon. Each year at this time we sense that a dragon is lurking in our woods, waiting for its moment to appear. In the Michaelmas festival, the dragon is a force of destruction that halts progress. The villagers live in fear of its mighty strength; its sulfurous breath has laid waste to the farmers’ crops and fields.

 As in all true festivals, our Michaelmas pageant has a sense of timelessness, celebration, and community. The village gathers to share the event. We begin with actors portraying a medieval story of Michael’s triumph against the forces of evil. Once the story has been told, we listen to the farmer’s words of thanks for the bounty of the harvest. Our villagers dance to celebrate the harvest. Their dance is interrupted by a loud booming drum: the dragon appears!

Two members of the Senior class are chosen to portray Michael and St. George. Endowed with heavenly strength and light, Michael and St. George show tremendous courage as they step in front of the great beast and tame its mighty strength to the betterment of all. The senior class then invites the youngest participants, the second grade knights, to join them in a triumphant circle. The entire community expresses its gratitude and celebration in song. The lower school then participates in games with the help of the senior class.

Each participating class has a role and a script that springs from its curriculum and reflects the stage of development of the players. Sixth grade creates and becomes the dragon force each year. Sixth graders, nearing the end of childhood and facing the new challenges of adolescence, are literally invited to enter the belly of the beast. Leading up to Michaelmas the dragon itself is a well-kept secret, not revealed until the festival begins. Each student enters into the role assigned to them and can look back at the roles of previous years and can look forward in anticipation of the roles that await in years to come. We, as members of the larger village, lend our support by observing the fruits of the students’ labors.

 As the dark of winter looms, and as we turn inward with the changing seasons, we are reminded of the power of courage and hope, and of the power of our gratitude for life’s gifts. We remember that for the betterment of all, we have the capacity and obligation to transform what is hateful and hurtful into what is loving and kind. Through their yearly participation in the Michaelmas festival, our children live this powerful message.