I go to a lot of festivals and events, especially so in 2023. Beginning at the end of February I’ve criss-crossed the country several times, from California to Michigan to Texas to Minneapolis to Rhode Island to Massachusetts to Washington to Florida (don’t worry, that wasn’t one very very long trip!). My travels aren’t over yet, but they are slowing down (mercifully).
I go to festivals and events because I like them, and most often because I’m asked to go. I think it’s good promotion for the nine books I’ve written, and it’s wonderful to be able to slip in and out of different magickal communities. I don’t live in Florida or Minnesota and have only been to those places a handful of times, but I feel super-close to the people I’ve met on those travels over the last seven or eight years.
After visiting a gathering or two, I’m often asked “how is the festival scene?” and it’s something I never really have one answer for. Paganicon in Minneapolis had its largest crowd ever this year, ConVocation in Detroit had one of its smallest in several years (though much of that was probably weather related). Heather Greene writing for Religious News Service published an article recently stating that “Pagan conferences return with more attendees . . .” which is true for a lot of indoor festivals but less true for others.
On April 29 of this year the Heartland Spiritual Alliance announced that this year’s Heartland Pagan Festival will be the last one ever. Heartland has been taking place for 35 years at Camp Gaea in Leavenworth (county) Kansas, and once boasted attendance of over 1000 people. I was lucky enough to visit Heartland in 2019 and despite a great deal of rain, experienced a kind and open community on a truly magickal piece of land. I will forever treasure my experience at Heartland and I’m genuinely saddened by its demise.
There are probably 100 Pagan-friendly events scattered throughout North America, most serving local communities, most outside, and most having pretty small attendance. I first heard of Heartland from a friend in Wisconsin about fifteen years ago, making it much more than a small local festival, but I’m guessing a lot of its attendees were from Missouri, Kansas, and other states that can reach Camp Gaea in eight hours or less. It’s heartbreaking to see a festival that has served that community for so long close up shop.
Defining and talking about community in 2023 presents a variety of difficulties. There are many Witches and Pagans who thrive in online spaces and have no desire to venture into a world of bodies and breath. Certainly “online” can be community, but I truly think something gets lost when all of us are unable to share physical space together. Solitary and online rituals are fine, and often effective, but a good to great ritual with a hundred people is an experience that can’t be put into words. There’s an energy to those kind of things that has to be felt to be understood.
We are often nicer to each other face to face. It’s easier to be an asshole when you don’t have to make eye contact with someone. For much of the early Pagan movement outdoor festivals served as our internet, it was one of the few places we could come together, and where we shared information. Times change, but there are still chants, local traditions, and (most especially) people that can only be experienced in person.
Indoor events are probably the future of magickal gatherings, but something gets lost when we lose outdoor events. Outdoor events are simply cheaper to attend than indoor ones. The price to get through the door is not much different when it comes to indoor/outdoor, but the price of the hotel room makes indoor things prohibitively expensive for some, adding three or four hundred dollars to the price of the event. For locals that hotel cost is easily defrayed by staying at home, but one of the joys of a festival or conference is the complete immersion into a space shared with other practitioners.
Pagan and magickal gatherings have always been a bargain, most often because there are lots of people working these events for free. People are running logistics, handling registrations, cleaning stuff up, cooking for others, providing security, maintaining a web presence, and dozens of other things I’m probably forgetting. In many cases though we are seeing less and less volunteers at some events, making those events difficult to run. Being a headliner at a lot of gatherings I hear about these difficulties first hand, and there is no easy fix.
There are musicians sometimes getting paid at events, a few authors/writers getting costs majorly defrayed and even receiving a small honorarium from time to time . . . . But if you want every presenter to have their transportation and lodging paid it can’t be done at the average price point of a Pagan gathering. (There is only one festival I’m aware of that takes care of transportation and lodging costs for every presenter.) What is the perfect price point? Whatever a festival needs to charge to stay in business. (Higher price points will probably have more amenities and a diverse line-up of speakers, lower price points less. Some people are attracted by those things, other not.)
Is the future of magickal gatherings bright? For indoor events probably yes. An aging population that prefers comfort over a tent, and a younger population that doesn’t seem particularly into camping is good for hotel events. The same circumstances make things worse for outdoor events, so it’s probably a wash overall. I also think several large outdoor gatherings will continue to do just fine as they are adapting to the needs of their changing audience.
If there is a magickal event happening near you, whether indoors or out, I urge you to support it. We are stronger together than apart.