What is Michaelmas? Michaelmas (pronounced Mi-kel-miss) was originally a Christian festival in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. It is the feast day of the archangel St. Michael, and is celebrated at the end of September and beginning of October each year.
Because Michaelmas falls near the equinox, it is commonly associated with the beginning of autumn. Waldorf schools use Michaelmas to teach students the importance of using courage to prepare for the colder, darker, winter months as we begin to feel the impulse to turn inward after the long, warm days of summer, and gather up strength and fortitude to face the colder days and long nights of the winter ahead. In addition to honoring St. Michael and marking the beginning of fall, Michaelmas represents harvest time – a time when people make preparations for the winter.
In Waldorf schools, Michaelmas, or the Festival of Courage, is the first festival of the new school year. Traditionally, Grades children perform the play of St. George taming a fiery dragon with the help of the archangel, St. Michael, who gives him courage. Following the play there is a small harvest themed feast which usually includes fresh baked dragon bread baked by the school children and fruits and vegetables that are in season, like apples and grapes.
The story of taming the dragon symbolizes the inner courage it takes to face our human challenges. As the days grow colder and the nights grow longer, we must find and bring forth our own inner light when the sun, warmth and growth of the earth are fading.
St. Michael, who in some versions of the story, gave courage to St. George and in others, gives courage to all the brave people of the village who have to work together to save themselves. Whatever the version, these stories give us courage to uphold what is right and true, and the strength to face the challenges that lie ahead. The story speaks to children in a deeply symbolic way, feeding their innate need for truth and justice. “Michaelmas is a great time to ponder our own inner dragons and to cultivate the courage and strength necessary for self development.” – from Waldorf Publications newsletter
Why are Festivals important to Waldorf education? Festivals allow us to be attuned to the rhythms of the Earth and the community we live in. Regardless of personal beliefs and faith, every human being can connect with the magic and gifts that each turning of the seasons brings.
How can you bring this Festival to your homeschooling family? Your family can read stories about St. Michael, there are lots to chose from out there. In this first version which is typically told in Waldorf schools, the dragon is slain and this second version, instead the dragon is tamed by St. Michael and becomes a friend to all. You can decide which version is best for your family. Here's a completely different Michaelmas story about stars and courage instead of dragons. The key element of these stories and the Michaelmas festival as a whole, is that it celebrates inner strength and courage.
Here is an Autumn verse: Golden light is turning grey, Mists begin to rule the day. Bare the trees, their branches lift; Clouds of dead leaves earthward drift.
Through the field the farmer goes, Seeds of ripened corn he sows; Trusts the earth will hold it warm, Shelter it from cold and harm. For he knows, that warmth and light Live there, hidden from our sight; And beneath a sheltering wing, Deep below, new life will spring! Deep below, deep below, new life will spring!
And an Autumn Blessing: Brave and true will I be, Each good deed sets me free, Each kind word makes me strong. I will fight for the right! I will conquer the wrong!
Sword of Michael brightly gleaming, Down to earth its light is streaming, May we see its shining rays In the Winter’s darkest days.
Michaelmas Feast: Your family can spend a morning making bread and forming it into the shape of a dragon and invite friends over to share a fall harvest feast. This is a beautiful story you can tell your children while you are preparing the dragon bread, as well as a recipe.
Mealtime Blessing: Earth who gives to us this food Sun who makes it ripe and good Sun above, Earth below Our loving thanks to you we show
Michaelmas Hands-on Activity: When we once ran our little Waldorf school, for Michaelmas one year, we had students create a paper mâché dragon. Michaelmas is the Festival of Courage and a time to gather our strength to overcome the shadows within us, shadows like bad habits. We asked students and families to write any bad habits they were wanting to free themselves of on pieces of paper. Then we had them place those inside the dragon's mouth to later be consumed by fire thereby releasing them. After the festival, the dragon was brought to safe place on a family's property to be burned. You could easily create this at home with your child(ren) in the way that would work best for you.
Whether you do none of the actives, some of them, or all of them plus more, whether you celebrate with just your family or beyond...may you find your inner strength and courage as we head into these darker days.