At our outdoor school, City Garden School in Columbia, MO, we honor seasonal festivals that encourage our children to connect with the traditions of our world and also to find their inner rhythm according to the seasons. One of these traditions is the Winter Spiral Festival.

Winter Spiral is a celebration of light at the darkest time of year. Generally, this festival is associated with the winter solstice, as we enter a period of growing darkness and the days become shorter.

Since our school is on winter break during the actual solstice, we celebrate it in January. Winter Spiral provides opportunity for reflection and growth, allowing us to feed our inner light so we may continue to be guided in the darkness by the light in our hearts.

Since ancient times, various cultures from the Native Americans to Celtic Pagans and Christians (and many others) have celebrated and shown reverence during these dark days as we approach the returning of the sun.

Deep mid-winter drawing near, 
Darkness in our garden here
One small flame yet bravely burns
To show a path whichever turns.
Earth please bear us as we go,
Seeking light to send a glow;
Branches green and moss and fern,
Mark our path to trace each turn
Brother animals, teach us too
To serve with patience as you do.
We walk with candle toward the light
While earth awaits with hope so bright
In the light which finds new birth,
Love may spread over all the earth.
Deep mid-winter drawing near,
May light arise in our garden here. 

Each year, teachers build a large spiral path made of evergreen branches. Alongside the green and fragrant path there are representatives of the three kingdoms of minerals, plants, and animals. At the center, a large candle, a symbol of the destiny light awaits life’s travelers in darkness.

When we arrived for the spiral walk, there was a wonderful energy in the air. Something special was going to take place. Families, teachers, students… we waited as the sky darkened and the evergreen spiral was illuminated with a single candle in the middle. The scent of fresh evergreen boughs hung in the air. The image of the spiral reminds us of our place within the universe and that we are on a journey and not in a race.

The children gathered with teachers in the dark and stood opposite the parents, separated by the spiral and the single candle in the middle. The children received apples, which featured an unlit candle and they all began to sing. The anticipation grew as the first child spiraled closer to flame of light in the center. As the child reached the flame, they tilted their candle to the flame in the middle, lighting their flame. As they walked to exit the spiral, the light from their candle guided their path through the darkness and they place their apple among the pine bough spiral. As the children took turns placing their apples, they helped to light the path for next child.

When the last child exited the spiral, a teacher reminded us of our resolve and reflection upon the last year and preparation for the coming one. As the air is now colder and the sun is dimmer and further away, we are in the darkest time of year. People bear their loneliness, sadness, and longing for the warm bright world in which we feel loved, connected, and understood. We have an opportunity for reflection and growth, allowing us to feed our inner light so we may continue to be guided through the darkness by the light our hearts.

This festival is a reminder of our own inner light that we kindle from the spark we carry within ourselves. We light our path, following our destiny to find our place among the light. We are reminded of our connectedness to nature, and to our fellow human beings. We are reminded that, collectively, our light shines brighter in the darkness than a single flame on it’s own. The beauty of such a festival is that it allows for universal interpretation. Everyone’s experience, feelings, emotions and interpretations can and will vary.

Whether your views are secular or non-secular, there are still lessons we can learn from one another, and by doing so we are sharing our light with one another and growing flames to guide us through the darkened days and a seemingly darker world.

I feel like I haven’t done the Winter Spiral festival justice as words seem restricted in their ability to convey the emotions felt while watching young children responsibly carry their flames and place them in the spiral and singing beautiful songs in the candlelight.

If you would like to add anything, or comment, please do so!