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Moonshine, Mules, & Magic: Folk Festivals & Paganism

Early August in Hope, Arkansas, means it is time for melons. Specifically, it is time for the annual Hope Watermelon Festival—a three-day affair replete with watermelon-weigh-ins to determine the largest fruit, an antique car show, an arts & crafts fair, face painting for the kids, and music. A four-day weekend celebration of all things related to mules occurs in Columbia,Tennessee every spring, which they call “Mule Day.” The festivities include a flea market, a wagon train, and enough banjo-picking to make Ned Beatty very nervous. The Mountain Moonshine Festival has been held for over four decades in Dawsonville, Georgia and features storytelling, music, dance, and a history of NASCAR racing. As a fan of folk culture and anything quirky, odd, or a bit weird, attending festivals like these has always appealed to me. Recently, however, I have thought a lot about the potential such celebrations have to add enchantment to a Pagan’s life.

Heritage and history are deeply important to many Pagans, who frequently hold ancestral feasts for the dead, practice archaic arts and crafts, and generally seem interested in the preservation of land and tradition. Embracing folk festivals serves Pagans well, because folk festivals have done much of the work of maintaining Pagan interests and values for many years. In an article by scholar Robert Cantwell, entitled “Feasts of Unnaming: Folk Festivals and the Representations of Folklife,” the author notes:

“We call the ‘folk revival’ what we do because in the popular imagination, and on the historical surface, it seems temporarily to have lifted the oppressive weight of history and civilization upon old traditional music. But in fact the gravitational force of folksong, folktale, folk crafts, and folk culture generally upon the minds of ordinary people, though it subsides and revives, has, historically speaking, always been there; it has been there for hundreds of years, well before there was even a word, in English, for ‘folklore.’ This has been particularly true in America, which was not only the native home of a complex and extensive aboriginal civilization, but also has been the adoptive home, from day one, of innumerable ethic, religious, economic, regional, national, and minority groups from which have evolved, in the American setting, thousands of diverse folk communities, urban and rural, with many residual, syncretic, and emergent folk traditions...There is, in America, scarcely a realm of human endeavor that has not enlisted the force of folklife, or representations of folklife, in its service”

The real work of folklore—the living of tradition in daily life—has been carried on by communities through events like folk festivals, and as Pagans we attempt to live traditionally, at least in part. So the merging of folklife with Pagan spirituality makes a tremendous amount of sense when it comes to folk festivals, yet I seldom hear Pagans talking about their regional festivals. Instead the focus is on specifically Pagan festivals—which certainly have a place in the overall constellation of such events—and not on the lived traditions of the surrounding community. I would contend that one of the best ways to enrich one’s Pagan spirituality, however, is to dive into such communal festivites and see what one finds.

A simple surface gloss of regional folk festivals reveals deeply Pagan elements: such celebrations frequently coincide with a harvest or seasonal change of some sort; in Britain, for example, the music and dancing recall celebratory rites like Mummers’ Plays and Sword Dances (which you can read a good deal about in Ronald Hutton’s Stations of the Sun). Even children’s face-painting resembles nothing so much as the masking and guising traditions found in Britain and the Appalachians. That is not to say that anyone planning, participating in, or observing such celebrations inherently perceives them as Pagan, but at their heart these communal festivities speak to values dear to a number of Pagans. They incorporate regional identity and lore, tie into the natural cycles of the year, celebrate community in a highly localized way (which may appeal to Pagans interested in the spiritual facets of their immediate environment), and preserve customs and traditions that otherwise might face behavioral extinction.

So what are the benefits and the challenges of embracing one’s local folk festival with a Pagan heart and open arms? For one, the problem of making time for celebration—something I hear a good deal about from other Pagan folk—can be alleviated by knowing that the bulk of the activities for the holiday being celebrated have been planned and arranged by the local township’s council, board, or committee. A spirited and industrious Pagan could easily establish a Wheel of the Year centered around such folkloric celebrations in his or her area, as most places tend to have multiple small festivals and one large one. Making a prayer before eating or leaving offerings in appropriate places near the celebration grounds can add the personal Pagan touch to such activities. A group of Pagans—even from different traditions—can gather at a local folk fest and share the experiences of celebration, dining, and laughing together and reinforce their common bonds. Such sharing also comes out in the charitable side of many folk fests. They frequently benefit one or more local causes, and help strengthen the community at a grassroots level. A Pagan group could easily put together a booth at a festival to raise money for a nearby animal shelter or environmental clean-up effort, thereby participating in the festival in multiple ways and doing good work in the process. There can be some definite problems for Pagans at such festivals, too, of course. Themed folkloric events can often bear undertones (or even overtones) of non-Pagan religion. Likewise, because of the conservative nature of folk festivals—and I use the term “conservative” here in light of the folkloric preservation which occurs at these events—sometimes Pagans must share celebratory space with those who disapprove and denounce any overtly Pagan activity. Yet here I would argue that because both groups can engage with folklife at events like an RC-Cola and Moonpie Festival, they stand to find a lot more common ground in the long term (the aforementioned soda-and-treat fest already has a built in “cakes & ale” component, for example). Some festivals even fall right into line with Pagan interests, like the New Orleans-based Folk Magic Festival, which mixes magical practitioners from various spiritual backgrounds to focus on shared traditions and practices.

Another challenge which can strike a nerve with Pagans is the generally wasteful side of some festivals, with all the trash and environmental damage to be considered as well. Such problems can frequently be remedied by participating in town council meetings or writing to local representatives, asking that they keep environmental concerns in mind when planning such festivities. All too often, townships are looking for new ways to improve their folk fests, and adding a “green” component might be exactly what they are looking for. Barring assistance from the top down, a Pagan group could offer to do the actual clean-up—everyone comes out well in that scenario.

The folk festival remains a fringe element in American* culture, as is Paganism. By opening ourselves up to participation in our communal celebrations, we stand to add a new level of enchantment to our lives. We see the natural world through historical, traditional, local, and seasonal eyes by joining with our neighbors in local events. We learn more about our immediate surroundings. We get into a rhythm of place. And we make our lives and our communities a little more Pagan, and a little more magical, in the process.

*NB: While this article centers largely on American folk festivals and practices based on examples and authorial interest, there is absolutely no reason that its themes cannot be broadly applied to anyplace which has such local festivities. No slight intended to my non-American readers.

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Tagged in: Folk Festivals

Cory Thomas Hutcheson is the author of the New World Witchery blog site, and co-host of the New World Witchery Podcast. He’s a folklore fanatic, specializing in folk spirituality and magic. His practice revolves heavily around magical traditions developed in America, particularly the American South, including hoodoo and mountain magic.

Comments

  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch Sunday, 07 October 2012

    I couldn't agree more, and have been working to bring more folk-belief practices into modern Heathenry for some time now. An interesting connection between face painting and guising; do we have any notion of when, exactly, the practice of face painting (in the modern sense) began?

    One other type of festival that is related to what you discussed are ethnic festivals, and they can be of great importance (not to mention being a lot of fun) for some Pagans and Heathens, particularly those of us of a more reconstructionist bent. For example, near my home there is an annual Scandinavian Festival, that features traditional music, dancing, food, etc. It's a great way to reconnect with the traditions and customs of the old country. Greek reconstructionists would probably get a similar boost from a Greek festival, plus there are Irish Fèis, Scottish festivals, etc.

  • Cory Thomas Hutcheson
    Cory Thomas Hutcheson Tuesday, 09 October 2012

    An excellent set of points, Joseph. The ethnic component of these festivals makes them a good way to reconnect with personal or cultural ancestry, which can be very useful for those struggling to establish an ancestral practice.

    With the face-painting, I'd imagine that the act of applying dyes to human faces is as old as civilization itself--the Egyptians used a lead-based eye-shadow type of makeup, for example. But as to when we started using face painting as a method for masking, I'm not sure. I will definitely have to look into that!

    Thanks for a great comment!

  • Gillian
    Gillian Tuesday, 09 October 2012

    Great article Cory!

    I think that it can take a little digging to find these festival gems but it is most always worth it. As you say, many traditional festivals are not all together Pagan, but certainly I know in my own state there are aspects of some festivals that have what appear to me to be Pagan influences or roots. In mid March near our camp there is an annual Maple Syrup Festival. This event has some Ostara-like aspects to it. There are also the ethnic festivals that ya'll just mentioned that have tucked into them some aspects of that "old" religion - The Scottish Festival and Celtic Gathering for instance, staged neatly right around Beltane...

    Of course, then we have those that I truly do not understand. Like the annual Ramp Festival. LOL. Yuck.

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