‘tis the season: celebrating Ecole Steiner style

Steiner schools know how to celebrate Christmas. It’s all in the build up. Rudolph Steiner was a big fan of marking the seasons – partly as a way to imbue children with the wonder of the world around them, and partly as a way to help them understand the passage of time.

The season of Advent (the period marked by the four Sundays before Christmas) provides a rich supply of material. The first sign at Ecole Steiner Haut-Alsace was the appearance of the Christmas couronne in Delphine’sJardin d’enfantskindergarten room. Not the “crown” that I’d thought when I’d first heard the term, but instead a table decoration: a Christmas wreath adorned with the four candles of Advent.

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Each morning in the dim light of wintery morn, early arriving children would sit around the couronne watching the warm flame and singing Christmas songs. Once experienced, I was enchanted. For the whole month of December I set my alarm clock a little earlier to get on the road a bit sooner and arrive at school in time to enjoy the whole tender tiny ceremony.

An important waystage on the way to Christmas here in north-eastern France is the celebration of St Nicolas on 6 December. Of course the school celebrated. For days before, we’d added songs about St Nicolas to our traditional Christmas ones. This child-loving gent is known to secret bon-bons (sweets) into children’s slippers to greet them on 6 December. In the jardin d’enfants, little children arrived on the day to find tissue-paper parcels bound with fine silver thread stuffed into their “inside shoes”. Excited fingers discovered walnuts, mandarins, a spiced biscuit and a little bell inside. Delphine wore hers on a string around her neck for days afterwards. My own little reindeer.

The excitement lifted another notch with the arrival of the school’s marché de noel – the first in the school’s new building. In fact, the building itself looked like a Christmas present, beribboned as it was in its red bunting and green pine boughs. I’d helped out with the decorations the previous day, working alongside my fellow craft group parents.So it was with a feeling of belonging and a faint proprietary air that we turned up on the big day.

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It was a cold, overcast morning but nothing could dampen the mood. The whole school was there to celebrate its achievement of moving into their new school building, as well as opening their doors and warmly welcoming the local community into their new home. We ate enormous amounts of home-made cake, watched an exquisite puppet show, ventured into the magical “grotte des lumières” (cave of lights) and perused stalls of lovingly-made objects – including the most delicately detailed beeswax candles I’ve ever seen. I even managed to buy Delphine’s Christmas present with the quick understanding of the stall-owner of my hand-gestures and pointing.

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But last night was the turning point. In so many ways: The last day of school for the year. The winter solstice bringing with it the darkest day of of the year. The official beginning of winter in this part of the world. And the school’s nativity play.

Apparently this is an annual tradition that had been postponed for two years running as the school was relocated from temporary home to temporary home during the purchase and then elongated restoration of their current home. But last night, it was back on. In this school, it’s the staff who dress up as all the usual characters. There was a bubbly air of expectation as we walked into the hall, proper stage-lights illuminating the stage setting of decorated pine tree, manger and hay bales. Windows flecked with rain drops adding another wash of stars to those hanging from the ceiling.

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I looked around the room as families and children filed in. So many familiar faces now. I knew at least a third of the children by name. I could match them with parents, whose names I mostly didn’t know but whose personalities were now warmly familiar. It suddenly hit me. I’d looked at so many of these faces for over a year as I’d poured over the Facebook page of this school, steadily falling in love with the spirit of its community. And now here I was, in the midst of it all. I felt doors sliding. A sensation of having stepped out of reality and into the pages of a beloved book.

So although Delphine squirmed on my lap and later sclathed on the floor, and Silas had to be relocated away from an irresistibly chatty neighbour, I could feel the magic of Christmas shot through the fabric of pragmatic parenting like golden thread in silk woven from warp and weft yarns.

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The big day arrives

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We all arose well before the sun, too excited to stay in bed longer. It was our first day at school. Silas couldn’t wait: “Is it time to go yet?” It was 4.30am.

Thankfully, Google had predicted a 30 minute drive to school and, with school starting and finishing earlier than at home, this reduced the wait time.

With the sky lightening behind the mountain silhouette, we stepped out the door, backpacks bulging. Five minutes later, I was gliding down the curves into the valley, more confident than the last time I’d tackled them, but soon after we joined the highway on the valley floor our pace slowed. Traffic. I hadn’t expected so much in this rural area. In places, we crept along. The 30 minute route was looking to be more like 40-45 minutes. Was it really going to be worth the commute? I was starting to think I had too off-handedly dismissed the length of a drive I would do every day.

I hadn’t found an exact address for the school so we had to cruise slowly along the street. The mist was thicker in the valley, and it was hard to find our way. But the school’s golden yellow glowed through. Like a beacon. There it was! I was as excited as the children. I’d gazed at photo after photo for a year, and now, the school rose before us in all its beautiful buttercup yellow reality.

Hand in hand, we walked up the stairs to the front doors. I introduced myself to the first person we’d met, who passed us through to Delphine’s classroom in the “Jardin d’enfants” (“Children’s garden” – early childhood school). And just as we entered, so too did Delphine’s teacher. I recognised her immediately from the photo she had sent: warm, open and friendly. She walked us out to the playground.

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What a scene from halcyon childhood days! Autumn trees had laid a blanket of golden leaves on the ground and some still flickered on their branches. A trestle table was set up with homemade brioche with coffee and tisane (herbal tea). Children rode around on balance bikes and up and over a mound of dirt that had become a makeshift mountain bike route. Others wheeled little barrows of sand into the sandpit. Two fast friends cozied up in a little cubby made of interlaced willow branches.

Next door in the primary playground, a campfire was burning and children were wrapping bread dough around sticks to bake on the fire. This was sufficient attraction to entice Silas to step away from the only two people he knew and into his new school.

For Delphine, this was her first ever day at school, not just her first day at a French school. So she was more uncertain. Yet, there was an irresistible pull for her too – balance biking on a dirt hill. Giving into the temptation, she mounted one of the little bikes and joined the troop of miniscule mountain bike riders.

Outside play over, we moved into the classroom. What a beautiful space! A low wooden table and chairs for children’s meals, a charming selection of handmade toys, autumn treasures from nature decorating the windowsills. We followed a pattern similar to our own playgroup in Canberra: morning tea around the table, seasonal songs and free-play. Delphine was increasingly at home.

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We finished where we’d started, with outside play and more happy balance-biking. Silas came to find us. Smiling broadly. His class had also finished for the day.

“So how did it go?”

Face ecstatic, “Great!”

“What did you like about it?”

“English class!”

He’d been the only child in his class of seven who hadn’t mumbled their way through “Head, shoulders, knees and toes” but had instead sung with gusto.

I looked at Delphine free-wheeling in the playground and Silas relaxed and happy. I felt like a bride on her wedding day, sure I couldn’t feel any happier than this. What a joy to see my children in a place that childhood dreams are made of. And I was there to see it. So often we’re only offered a window into our children’s lives, but on this precious day, I’d been there for it all.

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Little school: big dream

Photo courtesy:  Ecole-Steiner Haut-Alsace

Planning our Alsacien adventure, I needed to find a school for Silas and it needed to be a particular type of school, a Steiner School.

Silas has thrived in a Steiner education, an approach which is a better fit for the creative way Silas experiences the world. After getting off to a rough start in school, it was clear by Year 1 that I needed to look at other options for him. We visited a few different schools. Silas knew when he had found his fit: 10 minutes into his trial day at Orana Steiner School, after a morning run around the grounds, he turned to me with a hopeful smile and said “I could get used to this.”

I wanted more of the same in France and starting with the Steiner Education France website, I found four schools in Alsace.

Ecole-Steiner Haut-Alsace had a rather boring website: slightly out of date, few photos, lots of official text. Not particularly inviting. But there was a reason. Squirrelled away in a bottom paragraph was a reference to the school moving location. There was a link to click on to find out more.

One click and I was captured.

Unfolding in post after post was a story of a little country school with a big dream: this school of just 60 families had had the audacity to buy an old abandoned school building and to start renovating it themselves.

Photo courtesy:  Ecole-Steiner Haut-Alsace

They’d secured a low-cost loan, held fund-raising events, put windows out for “adoption” to fund double-glazing. With this, they could buy the dilapidated building. Apart from the professional-looking renovation plans, it appeared that everything else had been done by the school community – from bricking around the windows to make the double-glazing more affordable, to whitewashing the walls, to laying the wooden floors. From what I could tell, they were almost there. 

Photo courtesy:  Ecole-Steiner Haut-Alsace

Hours disappeared as I sat engrossed, watching the transformation through a journal of posts and videos. The big day the scaffolding came down and the building's elegant shape, with its distinctly Alsacien steeply pitched roofline, emerged. The moment the paintwork was revealed - Alsacien yellow, as beautiful as buttercups. The video showing the sweet mezzanine sleeping space for the tired tiny ones. The installation of the heating; an occasion to share sustainable heating technology with the local community.

Photo courtesy:  Ecole-Steiner Haut-Alsace
Photo courtesy:  Ecole-Steiner Haut-Alsace

I browsed through working bees showing happy parents and their children. I wanted to know them and I wanted to be one of them; community-minded people setting aside their weekends to make their dream of a better school for their children, into a reality. The photos showed a warmth I wanted to be a part of and a joy at achieving something so wondrous that I wanted to share. We had to be there for the first year in the school's new home.

I tracked down the email address and, using my most polite French, made our request to spend a “season” with them at Ecole Seiner Haut-Alsace.

I waited 7 days.

Then there it was. The response was full of all the warmth I could have hoped

“Merci pour votre joli message ! C'est incroyable que quelqu'un parle de notre petite école à l'autre bout du monde!”

Thank you for your message. Unbelievable that someone from the other end of the world is talking about our school!”

I smiled as I read the words. The delight I’d felt at finding them was now being experienced in reverse: what a surprise to be admired by an Australian family a million miles away!

Photo courtesy:  Ecole-Steiner Haut-Alsace