Advent Spirals in Waldorf Education
Updated: Nov 29, 2022
A glowing initiation into the darkest time of year.
The Advent Spiral, also called an Advent Garden, Winter Garden, or Winter Spiral, is a lovely annual Waldorf tradition usually held in late November or early December. If your child attends Waldorf school, you may be wondering how it began and what it means. Read on to find out.
What is an Advent Spiral?
At the heart of this event is a spiral pathway, usually outlined with evergreens or moss, sometimes decorated with crystals or other beautiful objects.
The Advent Spiral is often held in a large room, though it can be perfectly adapted to the outdoors. In the middle of the spiral, a single candle stands on a stool or table. People sit or stand around the edges.
(Photo credit: Paul Ruszel)
The lights in the room are out, making the room quite dark, traditionally lit only by the single candle in the middle of the room.
Music is also played or sung to provide an atmosphere of reverence.
Then one-by-one, people cross to the leader, and receive an apple with an unlit candle in its centre. With this in hand, each individual walks carefully to the middle of the spiral. They use the central candle to light their smaller one, then turn and retrace their steps to the entrance. On their way, they leave the candle on a placeholder in the spiral, then return to their original position outside the circle.
As candles are added, the dark room becomes lit with a warm glow. After each person has walked the spiral, the group may sit to admire the effect together. Sometimes, extra candles may be contributed for people in the community who are not present. Then the event comes to an end.
Though it seems simple, witnessing the dark spiral slowly light up can be quite magical. Even young children can be quite taken in by the atmosphere of calm and reverence.
Advent Spirals at Sunrise and Beyond
At Sunrise Waldorf School (Sunrise), the Advent Spiral has been a beloved tradition for over 30 years. This year it will be held on November 28. Since it is impractical to have the whole school walk a single spiral, the event is held within smaller class groupings.
Community members Lorna Lawson and Paul Ruszel loved the Advent Spiral tradition so much, they worked with other Sunrise parents to host a community event for children and adults alike. That was 25 years ago and the tradition is still active and beloved by many in the Cowichan Valley. Now some of the people who first attended as children are bringing their own little ones to the event.
Paul and Lorna have made the tradition their own, taking special care to decorate the room where the spiral is held, providing beverages and treats before-hand, bringing in live musicians, and even rolling their own beeswax candles.
(Photo credit: Paul Ruszel)
Significance of the Advent Spiral
In Waldorf education, the Advent Spiral is sometimes viewed as a metaphor for life, with its winding and often dark paths.
It also helps connect people to nature’s rhythms. According to an article in Waldorf Publications, “It offers a reminder of the reliable turning of the sun from weakness to strength each year at the Winter Solstice.”
The same article also described the spiral as a “powerful picture of light in the darkness, of one’s candle contributing to the great light with others in the dark world.”
We spoke with Lorna and Paul to find out what makes the Advent Spiral tradition so compelling for them.
Some of their favourite memories of the event are sensory. “The beauty of sitting there,” said Lorna, “Is watching the spiral itself light up the room. It's quite magical.” She also described the “beautiful element” added by the music. And they both mentioned the scent of the beeswax candles in the room.
The spiral also holds deeper significance. “For us, it's really kind of a sacred ceremony to rekindle our inner light,” said Paul. “The days are growing shorter, but there's just as much light available. It comes from inside of us.”
Another important benefit to Paul and Lorna is community building. “We like the idea of the community being able to connect,” said Lorna.
Hosting the Advent Spiral is a unique opportunity for Paul and Lorna to reconnect with old friends they may lose touch with throughout the year. Paul summed it up, “Not only is it a renewal of life, but a renewal of our friendships as well.” They noted they have seen others reconnecting with old friends in the same way.
Even though hosting the Advent Spiral can be quite a lot of work, it’s worth it. Lorna said, “We love it. Our hearts are so full by the end.”
History of the Advent Spiral
An early reference to the Advent Garden is in this article, published in 1956 in The Cresset. The article describes the Advent Garden practice at the Camphill school in Scotland. The school was founded by Karl König for children with learning differences. It was heavily influenced by anthroposophical teachings, and Rudolf Steiner even visited Camphill.
The article credits Karl Schubert for starting the Advent Garden tradition. Schubert was hired by Rudolf Steiner to work with children in the remedial class at the first Waldorf school.
It's possible, then, that the Advent Spiral has been with Waldorf education since the 1920’s. Although the Waldorf School of Cape Cod points out that the practice has roots in Bavarian traditions.
Spirals have been with people much longer. They are ancient symbols, appearing in many cultures throughout the world including Neolithic petroglyphs, and mosques.
The Advent Spirals, then, are likely influenced by older pagan traditions, and today remain a meaningful celebration of light during the darkest time of the year.