Once upon a time, a dragon menaced the countryside. The villagers cowered within their homes as the creature devoured the livestock and trampled the fields. Soon, the country lay in ruins; the king sued the dragon for peace, only to learn that the dragon required the sacrifice of the princess. A young man named George was chosen to champion the people. For his prayers and piety, he was granted a golden cloak and a sword of light by St. Michael and was given the courage to slay the dragon.
Michaelmas, the feast of the archangel Michael, falls on September 29. Fallen into obscurity since the 18th century, Michaelmas is still used to delineate the fall term in British universities – and it is celebrated with full force in the Waldorf schools. This slightly nutty preoccupation with rather obscure traditions is a hallmark of Waldorf education, but like most of the Waldorf traditions, has a purpose in marking the rhythm of the year, and the development of the child.
Michaelmas takes place at the beginning of the school year, as the children are gathering themselves to face the dragons of new challenges: new curriculum, new friends, and new projects. It also falls in autumn, and it is no coincidence that a sword of light is wielded against the destroyer of crops and livestock. Winter is coming, the days grow short, and soon we will be swallowed by the dark and the cold.
Though all of the grades celebrate Michaelmas, learning songs and watching the pageant, it is no coincidence that the grades in which the celebration of light and courage fall to those ages experiencing greatest change. The second graders are the villagers, the princess, and St. George. As they face the dragons of a scary world in which they are no longer certain that they believe in fairy tales or the magic of omnipotent adults (known in Waldorf philosophy as the nine-year change), they are given the courage to defeat the dragon before the entire school. The sixth grade are a fearsome monster. The hunger and unpredictability of the reptilian world of adolescence surges onto their horizon, and it is fitting that they should work together in lockstep beneath one skin as they are defeated or tamed by innocence.
The kindergarten has its own, gentler, and in some ways more meaningful, Michaelmas. Kindergarteners make swords. In the two-year kindergarten program, the older children, those who will brave the world of the grades next year, forge their own ‘swords of light’. During the week in which they hear and enact the story of St. George and the Dragon and learn songs and verses extolling the virtues of right and bravery, all of the children dye their own golden cloaks and the second-years rasp, sand, polish, and paint their wooden swords. These swords are stamped “by the blacksmith” with the symbol of each child, and are not seen as toys. The children will wield their weapons against the dragons of imagination, but they leave school on Michaelmas-day announcing that their swords are to be used “only for the right./ Not for some silly quarrel or fight.”
Standing by the straw-mulched vegetable garden in Sierra’s kindergarten yard, holding my big girl’s hand, I was taken aback to realize that she, and several of her second-year friends, were struck with attacks of clinging insecurity just as they were to receive their golden capes. As the teacher drew closer to our place on the ring, Sierra wrapped her arms tighter about my leg, her lip trembled, and she whispered, “I want Daddy.” I couldn’t figure out what was wrong; Mike isn’t gone, away, or lost. He was simply at work. Sierra loves her teacher, and she had been babbling all week about her cape and sword. Then, as I pondered my own dragons, it clicked. Accepting the symbols of courage, binding oneself to the task of slaying the dragon is often harder than the act of facing the beast, itself. And, I understood why the older children would receive their swords later, once the parents had left. It is almost impossible to draw upon one’s own courage when given a hand, or a leg, to hold.
The dragons have been hungry in our countryside this year. In the past twelve months, we have battled the dragons of disease, death, financial-difficulty, foreclosure, and injury. My personal dragons generally have blanks to fill and official seals. I have a deep-seated fear of authority which manifests as a complete inability to cope with officialdom. I cower inside my hut of procrastination. Earlier this spring, I received a fix-it ticket for expired tags on our pickup. Did I mention that it has been a bad year? We put the new tags on, and I promptly forgot about the ticket, and forgot to get it signed off.
Last week, the week of Michaelmas, the dragon knocked on our door. I received a letter, forwarded from our old address, from the Superior Court of Sacramento. Inside was notice that a warrant had been filed for my arrest. I never even got detention in school! The panic attack was immediate and violent – tears, hysteria, sobbing that we needed to just pay the $600 fine because going into court was not an option. “I can’t go there! I just can’t.” As my children crawled, bewildered, into my lap, I realized the horrible example I was setting. How can I ask them to brave their own monsters while I bar the door against my own?
The morning after I left my sobbing daughter in her golden cape clinging to her teacher’s hand, I walked into the courthouse and secured an appointment to appear in court. I emerged uneaten, and by pickup time that afternoon, Sierra sang, swung her sword and swirled her cape with all her might. My court date is today, and though Mike offered to come with me, I know that I must face this alone. I wonder if Sierra will let me borrow her cape.
What do your dragons look like?