Follow Kenny from the levees of New Orleans to the whirling chaos that is the Pagan festival circuit and beyond. Musings, rants, and just plain Pagan talk.
Pagan Festivals: Why, Why Not?
Since I am in the middle of my summer tour, which takes me to Pagan events around the U. S., I thought I'd devote a Blog entry to one of my favorite subjects, Pagan festivals. I've just come from a couple of these amazing occurrences, and tomorrow I'm on my way to a couple more. I'm lucky; I can spend most of my summer at Pagan festivals. I'm even luckier that I get to do this because it's part of my job.
I'm always surprised by the number of Pagans who have never attended a Pagan festival. Maybe I shouldn't be. When I entered the Pagan community in the early '80s, festivals were about the only way to meet other Pagans face-to-face, to share news and learn ritual chants, to experience large scale ritual, and to learn from authors and teachers. Much of that can now be done on the Internet, or at one-day Pagan events (like PPD) that allow Pagans to build community. And unlike those early days, when it was hard to even find other Pagans, it's easy today to locate Pagans, Pagan groups, open rituals and Occult book shops. Still, I continue to see a great value in Pagan festivals (maybe it's simply because I am, as my Pyrate says, a curmudgeonly Wiccan). So let's talk about a few of my favorites.
First, because I am a lovers of words and their meanings, let's define what we mean by Pagan festival: there are events, like Pagan Pride Days (PPD), that are put on for Pagans a few hours of one day. These have great value as a way to meet local Pagans, gauge local resources (bookshops, merchants, clothiers, etc) and find local teaching groups. But I classify these as Pagan events, not as Pagan festivals. So let's talk about what I mean by the term: Pagan festivals are extended events put on by Pagans specifically (and perhaps exclusively) for Pagans. Therefore we're not talking about ren fairs or SCA events: while those may be of interest to Pagans, they are not put on by Pagans for the benefit of Pagans (the mall is also of interest to Pagans, but that doesn't make the mall a Pagan festival). Pagan festivals are usually camping events (some sites are tenting only, some have cabins), and they are days long, lasting anywhere from three or four days to a full week or more. Standard happenings at Pagan festivals include: workshops on Pagan and magical subjects, usually by authors or experts; concerts by Pagan performers; rituals conducted by celebrities or known groups; and in the last fifteen years or so, a ubiquitous bonfire featuring drumming, ecstatic dancing, hoolah-hooping and fire-spinning.
Pagan fests are definitely a commitment of time, money, and other resources. You'll spend up to a week at the fest, pay an entry fee (some fests are priced high, some surprisingly low); you'll need to bring food or buy meals on site for that week, and you may buy items and products from festival merchants and from musicians. Many festivals provide a work-barter arrangement, so that people with limited income but lots of energy to work may attend. A few even offer scholarships. The pay-off is a week (or more) of community and fellowship with hundreds of other Pagans, providing an exchange of knowledge and ideas. Also some enjoy a week or so of living a free lifestyle: many fests are clothing optional, (if you are not used to this, it is non-sexual and nonjudgmental). Fests are often places where people can experiment with or indulge in alternate lifestyles, like polyamory, gender-bending and S&M; despite this, most are very family-friendly, and the more adult-oriented activities are usually kept from young eyes. The fire dancing and drumming are joyous and cathartic for many attendees, and some people come to a week-long fest just for the bonfire activities. Others come for the rituals and chanting. I will say here that the concerts are pretty good too...if I do say so myself. And of course, many attendees just enjoy the act of creating a Pagan village for a week, where you can speak and act as yourself and people get it! (As a companion piece to this Blog, see Owl's blog at Sage And Scourge, up in a couple of days).
I've wondered aloud, then, why more people don't attend these gatherings. Some of the reasons I've heard make little or no sense: More than one Pagan has told me they are afraid attending a Pagan festival will result in being “outed.” If you go to these things often, like I do, that seems odd. These festivals are run by Pagans for Pagans; no one is allowed to take your photo unless they ask, so your image will not appear on the Internet. No list is kept of attendees except by the fest's registration. And let's look at it in very practical terms...if word ever got out that a festival “outed” attendees, no one would ever go again, the organizers would go broke, and the festival would go out of business. Since some festivals have been in existence since 1976, I'd say that's a silly supposition. I'd say another major reason that people don't attend festivals is that they just don't know about them. Despite such Internet sites as Witchvox, and magazines like Circle Network News, people just do not seem to find out about these events. I really have no solid explanation for that.
OK, so let's look at some Pagan festivals I've attended. Remember this is an opinionated list, and you may disagree with me (experience tells me I should use the word “will” instead of “may”)...
Sirius Rising/Summerfest: Two great weeks of Pagan festivals back to back, these fests take place at Brushwood Folklore Center in New York state, close to Erie PA (so don't think New York city, think Erie/Niagra Falls). The site is beautiful, with rolling meadows, thick forests, and such amenities as a pool, hot tub, flush toilets, two good food cafes, a bar, and a gorgeous bonfire area. The festivals are very spiritually focused, with a major ritual performed each festival day. They have very good concerts on a professional sound stage, as well as musical events scattered throughout the site. Child care and a kids-only swim are available. Brushwood's fire crew are inspiring in their devotion. Held in mid-July, and highly recommended!
The Sirius Rising bonfire, courtesy of this site.
WicCan Fest: Canada's oldest Pagan fest is held in Barrie, ON, just north of Toronto. An excellent fest with amazing community, good workshops, a really nice bonfire and good food!! There are a ton of kids, and a very family-friendly atmosphere. The campsite is not clothing optional, which for some is a drawback, for others no biggie (it's Canada in June, so it gets a bit chilly!). There are a few cabins and lots of camping room, a pool, a small but awesome bonfire, and lots of fellowship. I hold this fest up as the bar to which I gauge all others. The organizers are just the best people I know. Held in June, and highly recommended.
Free Spirit Gathering (FSG): Held at Camp Ramblewood in Maryland, this festival is a scholarly oriented fest with excellent workshops by well-known presenters. There is still some wildness, like fire dancing, but my experience is that this is a very good fest for those who want calm and learning. The Pagan band Kiva performs each year, and they're very good. Cabins with indoor plumbing are a huge draw, as well as a full-sized pool. Held in late May/early June. (If you want something wilder, the same organizers hold two adult-oriented fests each year at the same campground, focused on sacred sexuality, both worth attending).
Pagan Spirit Gathering (PSG): One of the oldest Pagan fests, and the blueprint for all fests that followed, PSG holds community as its priority. This festival does not bring in big-name presenters, preferring to draw upon the talents of attendees for workshops and rituals. Run by Selena Fox, one of the great names in the Pagan community, and tied to her organization Circle, which has done such amazing work as the Pentacle Headstone project and the Lady Liberty League (which provides lawyers for people battling discrimination against their Pagan beliefs). The rituals are among the best in the U. S. Held in Illinois as of this writing (the festival has changed sites a few times) in June.
Heartland Pagan Festival (HPF): the Midwest's premier festival, Heartland was inspiring as it was one of the first festivals to buy its own land. The festival brings in big name Pagan authors, and features cabins and a lovely lake for swimming. Held in Kansas in May.
Earth Warriors Festival: EWF is a small, intense fest held in Ohio at the Autumn Equinox. While very small by comparison to other fests, the presenter line-up is stellar, there is great music (this year Kellianna and Frenchy & The Punk are featured), and the kitchen staff is awesome. Cabins are available, the mess hall is great, and there are good local merchants.
Starwood is not easily defined as a Pagan festival, as it encompasses much more: it is a party, a fire festival and a music festival with a strong Pagan element. The most chaotic of all the fests mentioned here, go if you want excellent Pagan workshops, perhaps the best drumming of any festival, and a lot of dizzying activity 24 hours a day! Ohio in July.
I will mention two others briefly: Florida Pagan Gathering was great the one year I attended: plenty of good workshops by well respected authors. Florida in May. Mayfaire in Greenville NC is a bright, shining little star, a small festival with a great sense of community. Held in May. The same organizers hold a Samhain fest as well, which I will be at this year.
I'm off to Brushwood in the morning, and I hope and trust that the festivals are as good as they have always been. I also hope to see more people take advantage of this amazing Pagan resource! Until next time, this is Kenny Klein, the Rambling Wren, explaining it all.
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