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the winter spiral - a how-to guide

Long ago, when our oldest was very little, and we were living in New Hampshire, we were invited into a beautiful neighborhood celebration that centered around a Winter Spiral (or Advent Spiral).  Each Sunday of Advent, as the sun was going down, we gathered in a friend's urban garden.  We held lanterns and sang songs.  We read verses and heard stories.  And most importantly, we each took a walk to the center of the spiral, where a single candle was lit.

We were carried by this neighborhood tradition until we moved north into Vermont.  And then we started our own Winter Spiral, reinventing it to match our own abilities and loves.   For four years now, we've held some form of the tradition.  At this little house where we lived (and that we loved), we created a simple spiral at the base of the hill where apple trees form a little circle of sorts; we constructed it from stones found in our yard.  We hung our own set of jar-lanterns along a path, and we made our way down in the twilight.  We invited neighbors and friends.  We sang, we left offerings, we lighted candles to represent each Sunday of Advent.  And often we shared a meal.

winter spiral 2

You'll find various versions of this across the world.  If you're near or involved with a Waldorf school, you can almost guarantee there will be a Winter Spiral in late November or early December. This "spiraling" represents going inward -- during the darkest time of the year -- and kindling your own inner light.  To us, where the winter is dark and long, it's a significant act.   Our spiral has a Christian impulse too, as we're also celebrating Advent, and anticipating the arrival of Christ over the four Sundays of Advent.  

You can bring to yours whatever feels significant to you in this time of year -- whether that be in celebration of the winter solstice, or of the coming of Christmas, or simply of walking the journey of life with family and friends.

People all over the world will be creating and walking spirals.  In honor, I wanted to share some of our spirals -- so that you might be able to create your own during this holiday season (any time is good!). winter spiral 7

We construct ours of stones that we found or dug out of our yard.  You could use many different materials: branches, shells, vines, leaves.  You could use silks or other materials.   You could make one out of grains -- such as oats -- by sprinkling them on the ground (though you'll want to mark it out first before you begin pouring).

winter spiral 3 winter spiral 4

There are options in terms of shapes. Some spirals are made so that there is only one way in and out.  Like this one we built in 2009:

winter spiral 2009

With our more recent ones, there's an in-direction and an out-directio -- which we find easier to use (if you want to invite more than one person to walk at the same time).   This is one we built in 2010: winter spiral 5

Don't let our photos deceive you.  You don't need a huge yard or a forest, or even a yard.  One of the prettiest spirals I've ever attended was inside.  With candles lit all about. :: The Lights At the center of the spiral is often a central candle: one that is lit at the beginning of the Winter Spiral Walk, and extinguished at the end, to signify the beginning and end of the walk.

As our spiral is an Advent celebration, we add "Advent candles" or lanterns.   On each of the four Sundays before Christmas, we start our spiral walk by acknowledging what Week of Advent we are in.  We light candles to represent the "number" of the week.  For instance, on the first Sunday of Advent, we light one lantern.  On the 2nd Sunday, we light two. And so forth.

winter spiral

Here's how it works in our house:  Once we have gathered at the spiral, an adult walks to the center to light the central candle, and then spirals back out.  Then, the oldest child in the group takes up an unlit lantern, and spirals to the center, where s/he lights the unlit lantern from the central candle.  And then s/he places the lantern somewhere on the spiral, and walks back out.  On the 2nd Sunday, the 2nd oldest child takes an unlit lantern and does the same.  And so on, for each of the Sundays.  So as we start this celebration, the spiral is lit by not only the central candle but by lanterns placed about the stones. Additionally, children and their parents each carry a lantern.  These can be bought or hand-made out of jars and wire.

winter spiral

The ones below were made from old jars that I collected over the years (found in basements and garages in old places that we've lived):

winter spiral 6

We made them by wrapping a length of wire just below the neck, and then another hooped through it to form a handle.

winter spiral

Add lit candles, and voila, you have a magical lantern that can be carried, or hung in special places.

winter spiral 9

We hang ours about the yard, to form a path to the spiral.  But you can hang them about a porch, or place them along a walkway.  Like luminarios, their light is magical.

But most of all, we have them in our hands as we surround the spiral. We form a circle of warm candlelight.

The Spiral Walk Ritual

The basic ritual has three parts:

1) the opening, in which the central candle (and Advent candles) are lit.

2) the walk, in which each member of the group takes a turn to go in the spiral, and leave a gift and/or have a moment of quiet or prayer.

3) the closing, in which candles are extinguished and gratitude is given.

In Part 2, each person takes a turn to walk.  This can happen one at a time, while everyone watches (and/or sings).  Or several people can go at once.  The basic idea is to quiet yourself, and to take the walk to the center -- where you will leave a gift and/or make a wish or prayer. Gifts (or offerings) can include anything.  You can choose what suits your intentions.  If you're hosting a single winter spiral, then it's nice to bring a spiral gift that represents a wish you have for the world or yourself, or to represent something you want to create in the coming year.  Or some folks bring a gift that represents something they want to let go of.

In the traditional Waldorf spirals, each week of Advent has a different offering.  The first week is of the mineral world (stones, shells), the second week is of the plant world (acorns, berries, branches), the third week is of the animal world (and so we make wax animals), and the fourth week is the world of people. 

winter spiral

The fourth week at our house, each person is given an apple with a small, unlit candle in it (see photo below), which they light on the central candle and place along the spiral.  So by the end, the entire spiral is covered in little lights.  And it is extraordinarily beautiful.

winter spiral

In Part 2, we often have an inspiring reading or two -- whether it be a poem about the solstice, or the coming winter, or about Christmas.  Or about community, or open-heartedness, or gratitude, or simply being present to what is right here, right now.   Some groups tell a story.   Some decorate the winter garden with small star ornaments.  Some groups have a moment of silence together. And then in Part 3, an adult walks the spiral one final time to extinguish the central candle.  We leave the Advent lanterns lit to burn into the night.  And the group sings a final song -- often in gratitude, and then walks back to the house, holding a sense of internal quiet. :: The Songs

In our spiral walk, we do a lot of singing.  We sing as we walk to the spiral,  we sing as we light the candles of Advent.  We sing as each person takes a turn to walk the spiral.  We sing as we make are way back to the house. There are lots of lovely songs out there that you can use.   Some that we love have many verses (and so take memorizing or music sheets).  Some are short and repetitive, and so can be learned quickly and sung over and over (and over).  Here are some of our favorites. :: Rise Up O Flame. This is a sweet and easy song, that's wonderful for a winter spiral.  If you're feeling adventurous you can turn it into a round.

Rise up O flame by thy light burning bring to us beauty vision and joy.

Now I Walk in Beauty. Again this is a simple song, that is fun to sing over and over again.  It can also be sung as a round.

Now I walk in beauty Beauty is before me Beauty is behind me Above and below me.

Ubi Caritas. This is a taizé song, so meant to be repeated over and over and over.  It's a lovely song in which to break out of the basic melody and harmonize.

Ubi caritas et amor, ubi caritas Deus ibi est. ("Where there is charity and love, God is to be found.")

winter spiral

This is one of my favorites, as well as one of the first ones we learned.  We always sing it as we make our way to the spiral.  You can choose to use some or all of it -- as each verse is really festive.

From the forest bring the boughs of fir and spruce and pine. bring them home, bedeck the house for now it's advent time.

(Chorus)  Bring the boughs, bring the boughs, for now it's advent time.

In the hearth a fire lay of oak and yew and pine. drive the winter chill away for now it's advent time.

(Chorus)  Bring the boughs, bring the boughs, for now it's advent time.

Tune the fiddle and the lute oh let the music chime Let none be mute for now it's advent time.

(Chorus)  Bring the boughs, bring the boughs, for now it's advent time.

Light the candles one by one Count off the days in rhyme Everyday a task well done For now its advent time

(Chorus)  Bring the boughs, bring the boughs, for now it's advent time.

Come O Christ Child do thy part The cresh awaits thee here Enter now do well my heart For now is Christmas near.

People look East. This is a traditional Advent Spiral song, and one of the first that we learned!  It's worth learning the whole things.

People, look east. The time is near Of the crowning of the year. Make your house fair as you are able, Trim the hearth and set the table. People, look east and sing today: Love, the guest, is on the way. Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare, One more seed is planted there: Give up your strength the seed to nourish, That in course the flower may flourish. People, look east and sing today: Love, the rose, is on the way. Birds, though you long have ceased to build, Guard the nest that must be filled. Even the hour when wings are frozen God for fledging time has chosen. People, look east and sing today: Love, the bird, is on the way. Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim One more light the bowl shall brim, Shining beyond the frosty weather, Bright as sun and moon together. People, look east and sing today: Love, the star, is on the way. Angels, announce with shouts of mirth Christ who brings new life to earth. Set every peak and valley humming With the word, the Lord is coming. People, look east and sing today: Love, the Lord, is on the way.

Other super song ideas: 

Silent Night is always a wonderful favorite.  O Come O Come Emmanuel is another that's appropriate for the Advent season that I just love.  And of course Dona Nobis Pacem! And this is just the beginning.

I hope this inspires you to create a winter spiral of your own. It's such a lovely, lovely tradition, and although it is not without work, it is one that is well worth the effort.  It brings family and friends together in such a full-hearted way.  And it helps us all to find a moment of quiet in the very busy time of the holiday season. May your weeks of December be filled with warmth, love and lots and lots of good cheer!

winter spiral

About the Author

Lisabeth Sewell McCann
Doer of Many Wonderful and Odd Things (including CEO)

Lisabeth Sewell McCann has worn many hats at Sparkle over the years, from Sparkle Kitchen Blogger to Editorial Director to Doer of All Odd Jobs. Her primary role is as CEO. Lisabeth and David live in Austin, Texas with their two sons.


About the "Martin and Sylvia Audio Advent Calendar"

Martin & Sylvia's Audio Advent Calendar consists of 25 stories for the 24 magical days of Advent in December - plus Christmas! From the playhouse to the library, from the Weber's restaurant to the Spunderful Shop, you can spend all of December with the delightful brother and sister as they follow their own Advent adventure. Enjoy a 10 to 25 minute story all the way to Christmas! You can listen to them on our website or purchase the collection in our Store.