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Summer is coming, and it's time for outdoor Pagan festivals and indoor conventions. Every year, there are more and more events to choose from, including small campouts and the huge multi-tradition gatherings. There are events for Pagans, Wiccans, Shamans, and practitioners of every other variety of Nature-based religion. Two of these include the Pagan Spirit Gathering, sponsored by Circle Network, held in Ohio; and the Starwood Festival, sponsored by Association for Consciousness Exploration, held in upstate New York. These events can attract thousands of Pagan revelers. There may also be a smaller regional festival in your own area. This is a perfect opportunity to network with other Pagans, attend instructional workshops and spiritual rituals, and even meet some Llewellyn authors and have your favorite books autographed.
Every year, our group helps to sponsor the Midwest Pagan Council’s Pan Pagan Festival, held in August in northern Indiana. This is a smaller, family-oriented gathering, priced so that parents can bring the kids. We also help to sponsor a Pagan Pride Day in Kalamazoo. Our family has attended Pagan festivals and conventions for the past twenty years, so we have plenty of experience. Some of these events have been wonderful, and others have been minor disasters. We make a big deal out of involving our children in our worship rites, but unfortunately not every Pagan gathering is family-friendly. Don't get me wrong, these adult festivals can still be empowering spiritual experiences. But if you have kids and want to include them in your religious life, you'll want to make sure that your festival time together is enjoyable.
First, you have to find a festival that works for you. Look for flyers at your neighborhood bookstore, check Pagan-oriented periodicals, and look online. If you're cruising around Llewellyn's website, click on the list of authors. Many of them have a schedule listed for their book signings, workshops, and other appearances. Quite a few authors attend Pagan gatherings and conventions. I've had the opportunity to hear Dorothy Morrison give a class on the subject of Love Magic, and Raven Grimassi speak about Stregheria. Put "Pagan & festival" and "Pagan & convention" into your favorite search engine to find an appropriate event close to your hometown.
Next, request a festival brochure and registration form. Some information may be available online. You want to make sure there are child-appropriate events, children’s workshops, and safe places for your kids to play. Some activities available for children at Pagan gatherings can include arts and crafts, nature walks, story time, a pajama party, and supervised play at the pool or beach. The festival organizers may sponsor a talent show, parade, or a ceremony just for the kids. A few gatherings include children in their main ritual. If there's no specific information on the registration form, there is usually a phone number or e-mail address. Call or write to ask! Some adult workshops and activities might allow children to participate, including Labyrinths, handfastings, child blessings, or women's mystery rites. Check ahead of time to make sure.
You'll want to make certain that the festival can accommodate your needs. "Primitive" camping means hauling water, chopping wood, and no showers or electricity. If you want to give Junior a bath each day, or hook up your RV's electric to play his favorite bedtime video, primitive camping may not be for you. If you are a single parent, consider camping with a buddy who also has kids. That way, you can share the workload of unpacking the mini-van and putting up the tent. But if you are alone, don't panic. At festivals, there is usually a strong sense of community, and many young people are very willing to help pound tent stakes. Outdoor camping is a delightful way for you and your children to bond with the Gods and reconnect with Nature. However, if mosquitoes and mud are not your idea of a good time, you might choose an indoor conference instead. These are usually held in hotels or convention centers, which means hot showers and soft beds. Indoor conventions are quite a bit more pricey, since, in addition to the festival fee, you'll be paying for your own lodging and food. (Outdoor festivals often include potluck dinners or communal feasts.) Information about accommodations should be outlined on your registration form or in your festival literature.
Before you attend a festival, it's helpful to read a few books about Wicca, Pagan rituals, and energy work. This will let you know what to expect, and help you to explain it to your kids. Try Practical Magic for Beginners by Brandy Williams. This book can help "newbies" to deal with the high levels of energy found at Pagan gatherings. Younger children can read the Fortune Teller's Club Series or Nightmares series to get an understanding of magic and Wicca. Older kids will appreciate Silver Ravenwolf's Teen Witch. Keep it simple for the little ones. You may wish to tell them things like "The Goddess is our mother. She watches over us." Show them pictures that represent the Gods/Goddesses. Smaller children will be fascinated by fairies and Nature spirits. There are many, many good Llewellyn books that can help you with small rituals, invocations, and short descriptions of the Gods, magical beings, and the natural world.
Next—packing! If you are camping outdoors, make sure to bring three changes of clothing for each child, each day. I'm not kidding. They will get dirty, they will get wet, and they will have a delightful time doing so! Children might want to wear costumes and ritual garb. Festivals are a great place to play dress-up, and be a knight or a fairy. Pack enough warm clothes and blankets or sleeping bags. Temperatures here in the North can vary as much as thirty degrees every day. It may be sweltering at noon and freezing at dusk. Look at the forecast for the weekend, and dress for the weather—rain gear, boots, swimwear, sturdy shoes, sweatpants, warm pajamas. Don't forget the favorite blanket or stuffed toy. Bring plenty of sunscreen and bug spray; those two key items can make the difference between a cranky, miserable weekend and "the mostest fun I ever had."
You might want to bring some toys and coloring books. It may rain during the day, and the kids will need something to do. Even if the weather is fine, children may need some quiet time to relax and play alone. Energies run high at festivals, and kids might want to "ground" by sitting under a tree and reading a book. Don't bring toys with small parts or you will spend the entire weekend hunting for them. And don't bring anything that's too high-maintenance—it will get smeared with peanut butter and dropped into the sand at least once during the weekend. Set limits on which possessions are "just for your family" and which toys can be community property. Kids will spend time visiting the play area and each other's campsites. We often bring bubbles, squirt guns, and a few large balls or a horseshoe set. There may be toys available such as a badminton net, blunt-tipped lawn darts, and beach toys, but this is not always the case. In a pinch, you can create a pitch-toss using empty soup cans and pebbles, or play hopscotch by outlining the game with flour on the ground.
When you arrive at the site, ask the festival organizers about the best place to set up. Some gatherings provide a special location for children and families. Others have a quiet area. Most big outdoor festivals have a bonfire with all-night drumming, which may disturb young children. Luckily for me, my kids are lulled to sleep by the sound of the drums. You might want to camp near the potties, or choose a room close to the childcare area. There may be "guilds," or camping sites that are inappropriate for kids. Find out the best place to stay before you set everything up, or you may have to move!
The children will spend a lot of time exploring their environment. Walk around the area with them before the gathering begins, and set boundaries. There may be a wetland or swamp, or poison ivy in the woods. Teach your kids what to look out for. Warn them against entering the woods or wandering too far afield. Caution them about touching or feeding wildlife such as raccoons or opossums, which may look cuddly but are actually wild animals. Identify any poisonous snakes or insects in the region. Find the first aid station, and introduce yourself to security personnel.
"Stranger danger" at a festival is rarely a huge concern, and there will be others looking out for the young people, but still—be aware of where your kids are playing. If you are in a state park or public campground, there may be non-Pagans nearby. At an indoor convention, you might not want your children to go to the merchant room by themselves, and you may wish to avoid the smoker's lounge. Hopefully, there will be a separate kids' area provided. Make sure that they stay within the convention, and don't wander into the wedding or bar mitzvah next door.
At many gatherings, there are activities just for children. Some adult workshops allow children to participate, but those requiring quiet meditation might not work for kids. Long lectures may be fascinating for you, but boring for your toddler. Many of the children's playgroups allow you to leave the kids for a while. This provides you with an opportunity to attend a workshop uninterrupted, or maybe get your favorite book signed by its author! If you leave your children at the kids' area, you will be asked to put in a couple hours of babysitting at another time. This is only fair. The childcare staff members love their jobs, but they can always use help!
Most Pagan gatherings have a main ritual, an inter-denominational ceremony which can include a Circle, invocations, drumming, chanting or singing, ritual theatre, or other Pagan worship rites. Many rituals include raising and channeling energy. Ask the festival staff what to expect. You may be able to speak with the Priest/ess or ceremony leader beforehand. Some gatherings involve the youngsters in the main ritual by asking them to pass the chalice, distribute crystals, help drum, chant and dance, skip around the circle to raise power, or provide other magical assistance. Some festivals have a ritual planning committee. Offer suggestions to involve the children—most Pagan leaders appreciate your help in facilitating the kids' part of the ceremony. There may be a separate area in the Circle for families with young children, including a place to sit down. If this is the case, you may wish to bring a beach blanket or lawn chair.
Make sure everyone has gone potty before the ritual and that they have a jacket or warm clothing. "Pagan Standard Time" can be expected, meaning that the rites might not begin exactly on schedule. Encourage questions about the ritual, but you might want to remind your children to whisper. Most festivals provide non-alcoholic beverages for a libation, but check before you let your kids drink from the ritual chalice. If your child can't have sugar, you may want to provide your own "cakes and ale." Help your children to center and raise energy. Also help them to "earth" the power afterwards. Large circles can raise incredible amounts of energy. Young children can act hyper or "wired" after a big ritual, which means that they've received some of the excess energy. A hematite stone or other talisman can help a child to stay focused. During banishing rites, small babies will often begin to cry. Offering a breast or bottle can help them to connect with you and remain unaffected by the energy working.
Ask other festival-goers to help you. Some elders have been participating in rituals for thirty years, and they are skilled at all aspects of magic. Many are grandparents who enjoy being around little children. Expect the unexpected. My own son has yelled, "Look! There's Daddy dressed up as Cernunnos!" right in the middle of a ceremony. Fortunately, the Gods have a sense of humor!
After the rite, there is often a large bonfire with drumming and dancing. Keep young children away from the flames. Teach them to ask before touching anyone's musical instrument or ritual tools. There may be drums available for the kids—or you can bring your own. Butter tubs, plastic bottles filled with pebbles, and baby rattles are all fun percussion instruments. There might be alcoholic beverages, smoking, or ritual nudity around the "party fire." This might not be a good environment for children, so you may want to go back to your tent and read a bedtime story. Some festivals have a curfew for young people, and require them to return to their campsite or room.
Speaking of ritual nudity, many outdoor festivals allow participants to go "skyclad." Check your brochure ahead of time, or call and ask if the gathering is clothing-optional. Give serious consideration to how you feel about the subject. If you believe it's acceptable for your family, talk about it with your children beforehand. Tell them that they do not have to wear clothes at the festival, and see how they react. Older kids may not want to participate. Younger kids often think that being "nakey" is a joyous experience. They can jump in puddles, get dirty, play with paint, and not have to worry about ruining their clothes. Please provide them with plenty of sunscreen and bug spray. If nudity can cause trouble for your family—if, for instance, Junior tells his teacher "I saw a bunch of naked guys!" or if your non-custodial ex-spouse will have a conniption—you might want to avoid a clothing-optional festival. Some gatherings have a special "skyclad area," and outside its boundaries, wearing clothes is required.
Lastly—don't forget the shopping! Most festivals and conventions have a merchant room or vendor's row. This is a good place to pick up new Llewellyn books and Tarot decks. Online shopping is great, but it's even better to feel the energy of the different decks, and choose the one that's perfect for you. Many merchants let you page through their books. You can learn a new magical technique or find out more about a certain Pagan tradition. If an author is appearing at your festival, they usually have copies of their latest book available—often before the large "chain" bookstores have it in stock.