An important advent tradition in waldorf schools is the advent spiral (or the advent garden). The room is dark, the ambiance very serene, on the floor has been placed spruce twigs in order to create a path in a spiral shape, and while live music (usually only a soft tune on lyre) is played, each of the children walks the spiral individually. He or she holds an apple in one hand, the apple functions as a candle-holder. At the center of the spiral, before the child walks back out again, the candle is lit. The child then places the apple and candle in the greenery on the route out through the spiral.
The spiral shape is, of course, no coincidence. It’s a spiritual ceremony and many aspects of it have spiritual meaning. It’s serious business, and that much is evident from the ritual itself, from how it’s carried out in practice. It’s not the place for childishness. It’s not the place for mindless fun. The experience is religious, no matter your beliefs.
Steiner himself talks about the spiral in connection with christmas; it symbolizes the process whereby important changes occur in world history:
Earthly events are determined by what occurs in spiritual realms. Take the sign of Cancer, for example. Its true significance is not always known, but this sign, which consists of two intertwining spirals, when rightly understood points to the dawn of a new age. Whenever an important event occurs in the world, whenever one stage of evolution is superseded by another thereby bringing something new into the world, two such spiral movements intertwine. One spiral of the sign of Cancer indicates the end of the Atlantean culture; the other, the beginning of the Aryan culture. Our ancestors thus perceived in the heavens the outward sign for the rise of the new Aryan culture. At a later time the sun entered the sign of Gemini, the Twins. This is the sign of good and evil, the sign that governed Persian thinking. Then the sun entered Taurus. Here we have the third post-Atlantean period with its veneration of the Bull in the Egyptian Apis cult, the Babylonian cult of the Bull and its sacrifice, and the Mithraic cult of ancient Persia. Man brought the sacrifice of the Bull down to earth from the heavens where it was inscribed.
Whether this Aryan stuff has much to do with the ceremony taking place in waldorf schools today, I’ll leave unsaid. I’m sure it’s not part of the official explanations, in any case. The German waldorf journal Erziehungskunst recently published an article about the advent spiral tradition. Interestingly, they also explain the idea behind the use of apples:
Nur, ich selber, nur jeder Mensch für sich kann sein Licht am Christuslicht, dem Licht in unserer Mitte, entzünden, und so wird es heller und heller in der Welt. Sankt Michael, der Geistes-Kraft und Mut Spendende, schützt den Leib vor Gefahr. Sankt Martin, der Austeilende, gibt ab von seiner Seelenkraft, wärmt den Leib und die Seele, Sankt Nikolaus stärkt Leib und Seele, bringt den Leb(ens)kuchen, stärkt die Lebenskräfte, und so gestärkt, können wir uns im Adventgärtlein nun selbst auf den Weg machen, unser Licht am Christtag bei dem Kind in der Krippe neu zu beleben, wieder zum Leuchten zu bringen.
Das Kind in der Krippe hat mit seinem Erscheinen die Kraft des Sünden-Apfels, des Sündenfalles gebrochen, mit dem Licht, der Lichtkraft, der reinen Liebe überstrahlt. Das ist es, was hinter dem Adventgärtlein mit seinem Lichterapfel steht.
Erziehungskunst calls the spiral shape a template of all life process. That, as well as the spiral’s traditional importance in various cultures and beliefs, is supposedly the reason for using it in this context. Critics have noted it might be a symbol for reincarnation. It could also be a symbol for individual progress towards spiritual enlightenment. I guess waldorf schools don’t have much trouble explaining the tradition in terms that people might accept — they’d refer to, I assume, the outer conditions of december: the increasing darkness and then the turn-around towards lighter times. Death and rebirth.
Edit: I just had to add this quote about the advent spiral, among other things because it mentions reincarnation explicitly and comes from an international waldorf education association:
‘The garden of evergreens is a symbol of life everlasting. Arranged in a spiral, the path represents the path to birth and the process of incarnating. The apple is a picture of the body, the house that we live in. The red symbolizes our blood and our forces of will. The flame of the candle is the flame of our individual human spirit. The Advent Garden is an imaginative experience of our individual spirit light incarnating into life on Earth, and how it is able to dispel the darkness around us. In community, our spirits shining together shed a mighty light.’ [Source.]