A month prior to becoming Director of Community Development at the Waldorf School of Princeton (NJ) in 1993, my husband, youngest daughter, and I flew to Princeton to meet the faculty, visit the surrounding towns, and rent a place which would be our new home. It was an exciting time for us all. I had completed my 3-year Waldorf Teacher Education program and graduated from Rudolf Steiner College and our daughter had graduated from the 8th grade at Marin Waldorf School. Our move from California to New Jersey would be an adventure for us all.
At the end of our visit, we attended the school’s annual Solstice/St. John’s Day celebration. It was held in a clearing on the 12-acre main campus (formerly a farm.) At dusk families, teachers, and friends associated with the school arrived and walked down the path gathering around the bonfire. The pile of wood had taken shape over several days and gained in height by June 24th. We were looking forward to seeing how this event would be celebrated. We also recognized that this event wasn’t just a fun way to commemorate the longest day of the year and the start of summer. It really meant leaving one community on the west coast and joining a new one on the east, the start of a new career path, and a new beginning for us as a family.
I had loved bonfires as a child, but didn’t see them often. The neighborhood where I grew up always had a bonfire the night before the 4th of July. It was a huge tower and its frame was usually constructed of railroad ties. The insides had logs, old wooden boxes, and other scrap wood. It was a night we children could certainly stay up late—the bonfire would be lit around 9 or maybe later. Around that time children were directed to stop their play and to join their parents up on the adjoining hill—two or three men then would pour kerosene on the lower logs of its base. I can still remember the suspense waiting for a burning stick to be thrown onto the pile. Everyone cheered with the resulting roar—it was certainly the start of summer for me!
I felt that same jiggly tummy at the Princeton site as we waited for the bonfire to be lit. It, too, burst alive and we cheered. A few of the faculty started singing and someone took my hand and we were joined into big circle around the fire. Gradually everyone joined in singing. The bonfire’s reflections helped me see each face—here were the families I would soon get to know in the coming year. The longest day of sunlight had been capped off with the fire of wood and community, but I would remember it for something more ethereal, more spiritual.
As the fire diminished, I glanced over to the meadow at the far side of the campus. I could see something twinkling. I suddenly recognized something else from my New England childhood. Could that really be a firefly? I hadn’t seen any in decades. We left the bonfire site and moved down the path toward the meadow. This indeed was a lone firefly, but not for long. There were more lights twinkling—soon it seemed the whole meadow was alive. My daughter, even at age 13, was entranced—she’d never seen them before.
To this day I have never witnessed anything like the scene before us. How could this vast expanse of meadow be so transformed into a dancing field of magical light in a matter of minutes? These were not the insects whose light-filled courtship moves from the grass to the treetops on humid summer nights, not that night certainly. If ever I believed in faeries or spirits, it was that evening. As we gingerly stepped completely off the path, drawn into the almost impenetrable head-high grass, a wondrous community of invisible beings completely surrounded us—
—and held us in their light.
The following is an excerpt from “St. John’s Tide” written by Karen Rivers in the Celebrations and Festival section of Waldorf Education: A Family Guide.
High summer has been celebrated with fire since ancient times. Huge bonfires were lit on the Summer Solstice to help the sun continue to increase rather than to diminish in the light it brings. An old custom required that people should jump over the fire to burn away their woes and weaknesses.
Just after the Summer Solstice is the Festival of St. John, celebrated on June 24. Some hold the belief that Elizabeth, John’s mother, built a large bonfire to notify her cousin, Mary, of the birth of her child, that she might come to share in her joy. Since many customs of the Summer Solstice festivals blended with aspects of St. John’s life, the two festivals have become interwoven in many regions of the world. From now until the Winter Solstice in December, the sunlight will be diminishing….
On this day, when the sun is at its height, we may turn our eye inward with the conviction that in times of abundance, the need for inner strength is just as great as in times of little light or in complete darkness.