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What to expect at a Pagan festival

Michelle Gruben beginner festivals groups opinion pagan travel

What to expect at a Pagan festival

Thinking about attending a Pagan festival? Great! Festivals are a fabulous way to meet like-minded friends, nurture the mind and spirit, and be part of a vibrant, celebratory community.

But there’s a lot to consider before you pitch your tent and go bounding toward the revel fire. This article will help you sidestep some of the newbie mistakes that can dampen your enjoyment of a Pagan festival. We’ll touch on what to expect, how to pack, how not to be a jerk, and how not to miss out on the wonderful things the festival has to offer.

Disclosure: I’ve been attending Pagan festivals for around 10 years and vend at a few. I’m not affiliated with any of the organizations mentioned here (except as a member, when membership is required to attend the festival). This article reflects my individual research and opinions. Please check with each festival’s organizers for the most current festival dates and policies.

What to Expect

People who have never attended a Pagan festival before often ask, “What’s it like?” The answer, of course, is that it depends on the festival. Settings, amenities and program offerings vary widely. To Pagans, camping can mean anything from sleeping on the ground to fancy-shmancy yoga retreats complete with cabins and catered meals.

The focus and “vibe” of each festival is different as well, and they always evolve over time as people come and go. If you’ve attended a Pagan event before and didn’t enjoy it, maybe try a different one. Or consider going back after some time has passed.

But “It depends,” isn’t a very helpful answer, so let’s talk about the similarities between Pagan festivals rather than the differences. Common experiences at Pagan festivals include:

Connecting with Nature. Most of us lead busy, tech-fueled lives, and Pagan festivals are a treasured opportunity to slow it down, to collect a few rare hours of “green time.” As Pagans, our spirituality and relationship with Nature are intertwined. A walk in the woods can be every bit as profound as a prayer. And don’t the stars look huge and bright when you’re away from the city lights? Meditating and communing with the natural world are two of the main attractions for Pagan festival-goers.

Public ritual. Look at any Pagan festival’s schedule and you’re likely to find one or more public rituals. (A Pagan ritual, in case you’re not familiar, is like a piece of participatory theatre, with the added dimension of having some spiritual significance.) Public rituals are usually designed to be easy to follow for a large, diverse group. They are often seasonal, such as a maypole dance at Beltane or a rite of gratitude at harvest time. Besides the main ritual(s), there will often be smaller, more specialized rituals on the schedule.

Since so many Pagans are solitary, festivals present a rare chance to experience ritual with dozens, or even hundreds of fellow seekers. It’s also an opportunity to learn about the beliefs and practices of traditions other than your own.

Guest presenters and workshops. Most Pagan festivals offer fun and educational activities during the day. There are workshops and discussions on a wide range of topics including spirituality, arts and crafts, relationships, and issues of special concern to Pagans (such as how to plan a Pagan funeral, or deal with religious discrimination in the workplace). Depending on the venue, the presenters may be big-shot authors flown in for the occasion, or simply festival attendees with knowledge to share.

Like the public rituals, participation in workshops is completely optional. Some people try to fill their time by going to every session they possibly can, while others prefer a less-structured experience. Most of the time, workshops are included in the price of your ticket, but some instructors ask for a fee or donation to go towards materials.

Music, drumming, and dance. Pagans worship with our whole bodies. The voice, the hands, the dancing feet—these are sacred instruments, and when the sun sets, it’s time to boogie down! Even the tiniest Pagan gatherings will have a drum or chant circle. Larger ones may host singer-songwriters, music instructors, or even a rock concert. Drumming or dancing around the fire is a communal, ecstatic experience that’s hard to come by in everyday life, but easy to find at a Pagan campout.

But…It’s Like, a Sex Thing, Right?

Whenever I mention Pagan camping activities to non-Pagans, their imaginations often become quite vivid. (Even more so if the event in question is clothing-optional.) Pagans are conflated with swingers and party animals. A Pagan festival is certainly a week-long bacchanalia, lit by firelight and fueled by witch’s brew…right?

Sorry to disappoint. It’s true that some festivals do offer sexually-oriented activities for adults. Polyamory is common (though by no means universal) within the Pagan community. Group and casual encounters are an option, if you seek them out. But I don’t know a single person who goes to Pagan festivals only (or primarily, even) for the “sexytimes.”

Most Pagan festivals—the larger ones, anyway—are family-friendly. That means that minors may be present and explicit sexual conduct is not allowed. Plenty of hookups happen, but they generally happen in private—and there’s never been a tent big enough to fit the size of orgy that exists in the popular imagination.

Pagan festivals are big on consent culture and respect for all genders. Consent is really very easy to understand, so I’m not going to spend a lot of space on it here. “No” means no, and “may I?” is never the wrong thing to say. Suffice it to say, if you grope, wheedle, boast, talk trash about people’s bodies, or can’t handle it when someone’s not interested, you won’t be welcome for very long.

Even so, some newcomers inevitably show up at Pagan festivals expecting freely available sex. This can be a real bother if their manners aren’t good. If they don’t quickly find a like-minded partner, the oversexed newbie will become pouty, resentful, and disruptive. Keep a close eye on these folks and educate them about consent if they overstep.

There Is Something for Everyone

To sum up, Pagan festivals offer a unique experience as spiritual retreats, with a big heaping side of revelry. They are not debauched parties, but multi-day celebrations of our core values and communities. Most are welcoming to beginners and non-Pagans, as well. Apart from mandatory community service at some festivals, participation is a la carte—you can be as busy or as lazy as you want to be.

Finding a Pagan Festival

Large festivals have websites and even Wikipedia pages. Smaller festivals require a bit more scouting and may be invite-only—try asking Pagans near you where they like to camp. But chances are, there’s one within road-trip distance. Here’s a few of the best-known Pagan festivals in the United States (info is current as of January 2019):

Pagan Spirit Gathering

Pagan Spirit Gathering happens the week of Summer Solstice near Oxford, Ohio. Held annually since 1980, it is one of the oldest and largest Pagan Festivals in the United States. PSG is hosted by Circle Sanctuary, a non-profit with a long legacy of advocating for the Pagan community.

Heartland Pagan Festival

Heartland Pagan Festival is held annually at Gaea Retreat Center in Kansas. Every Memorial Day weekend, hundreds of Pagans converge from around the Midwest and beyond. Camp Gaea offers primitive camping, RV camping and showers. Pre-registration is required, and registrants are subject to a background check.

Council of Magickal Arts

Council of Magickal Arts hosts festivals semi-annually, near Beltane and Samhain. Both festivals happen at Spirit Haven, a private ranch about an hour southeast of Austin, Texas. CMA festivals are four-day, clothing-optional events with daily activities, a Saturday night concert, and nightly bonfires. Camping is mostly primitive with portable toilets.

Pagan Unity Festival

This four-day family-oriented festival occurs in late May in Middle Tennessee. Hotel rooms, cabins and tent camping are available. PUF is held on public land (Montgomery Bell State Park), so clothing is required in all festival areas. A basic meal plan (omnivore with some vegetarian dishes) is included in the ticket price.

Beltania

An annual mid-May retreat in the Black Forest mountains of Colorado. Beltania is known for its music, Maypole gathering, and peerless scenery. A self-described “glamping” festival, Beltania offers cabins, RV sites, tent camping, and commuter passes (no overnights). Ticket pricing includes meals, with special dietary options available. Beltania is drug, tobacco, and alcohol-free.

Starwood Festival

Starwood happens the second (full) week of July in Pomeroy, Ohio. Nestled within several hundred acres, it is a seven-day, clothing-optional festival for “Pagans, Hippies, Free-Thinkers, and Music Lovers.” Camping is mostly primitive with portable toilets, but the site does have potable water, hot showers, and a shuttle vehicle for getting around the large site.

Sirius Rising

A workshop-intensive, eclectic weeklong festival in Sherman, New York. Sirius Rising is clothing-optional, with plenty to do for adults and kids. Extra fees for many craft activities. The site (Brushwood Folklore Center) is well-developed with a pool, restaurant/café, general store, showers, and RV hookups including waste disposal.

Pagan Pride Days

Pagan Pride Days are single-day events held in cities around the world, usually in the fall. The parent organization (Pagan Pride Project) has taken pains to emphasize that a PPD is not a festival, but a community outreach event. Okay, fine. With music, vendors, and workshops, a Pagan Pride Day is effectively a mini Pagan festival. They’re free to attend, convenient to many big cities, and a great, low-stakes way to figure out if a full-blown Pagan festival is something you might enjoy.

Big or Small?

Pagan Festivals range in size from just a few families celebrating a Sabbat at a state park, to giant week-long shindigs with thousands of attendees. One type of festival is not necessarily better than the other, but they both have their advantages:

Larger festivals have more scheduled activities, more big-name guests, and more creature comforts like showers and seating. They are more likely to have children’s programs and medical staff on hand, so they can be a better cho­­­ice for families with young children.

Large, nationally-known festivals attract people from all over, and the attendees are generally more diverse. If you like to shop, drum, or dance, you will have more access to these activities at a larger gathering. There are lots of amazing people to meet, and it’s easier to get away from someone who’s bothering you—whether it’s an ex or a chatty stranger.

On the other hand, large festivals require more rules to keep the event safe and running smoothly. You may be required to work a volunteer shift for part of the festival. Large festivals have more infrastructure to maintain, and typically cost more to attend than smaller ones. Your campsite will be smaller, and lines for everything will be longer.

Perhaps the biggest drawback of large Pagan festivals is their impact on the natural setting. A campground that sleeps 800 is never quiet, even in the dead of night. Lights, garbage, amplified music, human noises, buildings and vehicles all detract from the experience of being out in nature. Depending on why you camp, this could be a minor annoyance or could completely defeat the purpose.

Small festivals offer less-developed campsites, but also fewer amenities.  There’s fewer structured activities. It’s possible to learn everyone’s name at a small festival—it’s also nearly impossible to avoid someone you don’t want to see. Smaller festivals often have a marketing budget of zero, so their composed primarily of previous attendees and their friends. That’s great if you love intimate conversation—potentially less good if you don’t know anyone.

The best festivals exist in the “goldilocks zone” of size: Plenty of stuff to do and people to meet, but not overwhelming. For me, this means a few hundred people, but obviously it’s subjective. Also remember: You can seek out cozy, quieter spaces at a large festival, or bring a bunch of camping buddies to a small festival to help keep you entertained. Adapt!

Signing Up

Once you’ve decided on a festival to attend, the next step is to register. Large Pagan festivals offer pre-registration online, with a (often substantial) discount for registering early. Some festivals allow tickets to be purchased at the gate—but most don’t, for financial and security reasons.

If your circumstances allow you to buy tickets well in advance, do it! Early registration helps the festival get much-needed cash flow for paying deposits and buying supplies.

Read the refund/cancellation policy and mark your calendar with any important deadlines. Tickets are often non-refundable if you cancel after a certain date, but you should be able to get a refund if the event doesn’t happen at all. Some past Pagan events have been cancelled because the organizers had a dispute or ran out of money. I prefer to buy my tickets with a credit card so I’m covered by the card issuer’s buyer protection policy, just in case.

Print out or take a screenshot of your registration confirmation and put it in safe place until the big day. Many festivals offer e-ticketing, but having a paper copy will help if there’s any issues at the gate. Also take note of any documents that will be required at check in (e.g., photo ID, military ID, handicapped parking permits, animal vaccination records).

Day Passes

Maybe you’re on the fence about whether to attend a festival. Maybe you have family obligations or special needs that make overnight travel impractical. Or maybe you just don’t like to sleep outdoors. (Unusual for Pagans, perhaps, but totally understandable.)

Fortunately, some festivals offer day passes so you can get a sample-size festival experience. This is a handy option when the festival happens close to home, or when it coincides with a longer vacation. A day pass is a real boon to nervous newbies, workaholics, and folks on a tight budget. You can attend a few workshops—maybe enjoy an evening concert—and then return to the comfort of a warm bed and a hot shower.

Some festivals (Pagan Spirit Gathering and Beltania, for instance) don’t offer day or weekend passes, because they want you to be part of the entire (week-long) experience. If that’s the festival’s policy, you can still choose to attend for a shorter time—you just forfeit the unused portion of your ticket.

Budgeting for Festival

Attending a Pagan festival is generally less expensive than a traditional vacation, but the small expenses can still add up. It helps to be aware of these costs so you can plan accordingly. There is nothing worse than partying all weekend in the woods, then realizing you don’t have enough gas money to get home. (Don’t laugh—I’ve seen it happen!)

I recommend making a simple budget for each festival you might like to attend. For example, my budget for a three-night festival in my home state looks something like this:

Festival tickets for two: $150

Rental trailer and insurance: $85

Gas: $80

Groceries (food, beverages, toiletries): $120

Coffee and snacks: $30

Spending money (for Merchants’ Row): $50

I also bring about $100 in emergency cash—more if I am traveling in a remote area where I may not have access to electronic funds. The idea is to be able to cover a clinic visit, minor auto repair, or other unforeseen crisis. If this money doesn’t get spent, it goes back into the pot for the next festival.

As you can see, a festival that “only” costs $75 per person ends up totaling a few hundred dollars, all things considered. It’s still a great value for the money, but it’s not an insignificant item in our annual travel budget. Expenses that I don’t have—but some attendees do—include airfare, camp lease fees, propane for cooking and heating, special medical needs, and boarding or pet-sitting fees for animals left at home.

My budget also assumes that I already have all the gear I need to camp—that I haven’t had to replace a rusty camp chair or a leaky ice chest. If it’s your very first time camping—or if it’s been awhile since you’ve inspected your stuff—getting outfitted for the trip can be very expensive indeed.

You can spread the financial burden around by camping with other people (or groups) and pooling your resources. However, make sure that everyone knows exactly what supplies and equipment they will be responsible for bringing, who will be traveling with who, who is responsible for shared labor, etc. (Hint: The larger your posse, the harder this will realistically be to accomplish.)

Vending

Most festivals have a merchant’s row where attendees can set up shop to peddle their wares. Pagans love to support Pagan-owned businesses! Arts and crafts, ritual items, costumes, and metaphysical services are popular offerings at Pagan festivals.

Be prepared with everything you need to vend: The nearest bank and Home Depot will be miles away. The festival may or may not provide electricity or Wi-Fi for vendors’ use. If your business requires these to operate, be sure to confirm (and re-confirm) with the vendor coordinator before you arrive.

Almost universally, Pagan festivals require vendors to be attendees—meaning you will need to purchase a regular ticket for yourself and your staff, as well as your vendor pass. Many festivals also screen vendors for suitability for the event. If you intend to vend, register well in advance so the festival has time to review your application and reserve your spot. Some types of businesses (tattooing/piercing, food and alcohol vending, sexually oriented products, massage) are subject to local laws—so don’t be surprised if the festival restricts these types of booths.

This should go without saying, but merchant fees are a major source of revenue for many festivals. Unauthorized vending hurts the event and discourages other vendors from registering. So…do the right thing and refrain from selling things out of your campsite or backpack, even if it’s just for “gas money.” If you can’t afford the booth fee, see if the festival will let you split a booth with another business or sell your items on consignment with a registered vendor.

Know Before You Go

There are times to be spontaneous, but out in the wilderness hundreds of miles from home isn’t one of them. Camping is different from other kinds of travel—skipping a few crucial items can ruin your trip, or even kill you. The more prepared you are, the more likely it is that you will have a good time. Save the impulsiveness for your morning breakfast scramble.

The first thing to find out is what the accommodations will be at your festival site. Is it primitive camping, or is shelter provided? Meals? Are there showers? Drinking water? This information is essential when creating your packing list. Never assume that anything will be provided unless the festival materials state that it’s included…and maybe not even then.

If you have questions about the site or facilities, get clarification from the organizers. But try not to wait until the days just before festival, when they will be busy with a million tasks and have less time to respond to questions.

Which leads me to my top tip for this article:

Read the Festival Guide

Seriously, read the festival guide. Or event program, or website FAQ, or welcome letter. Whatever info your festival organizers have put in writing to help you have a fun and safe time, seek it out and read it all. While this article has general tips and guidelines for attending a Pagan festival, it’s no substitute for information that’s specific to the one you’re going to attend.

The festival guide should contain everything you need to know before you arrive on site, from physical directions to legal terms and conditions. It will tell you what to expect, and what’s expected of you as an attendee.

If you’re a first-timer who’s feeling apprehensive, I promise you will feel a hundred times better (maybe even excited!) after downloading the festival guide into your brain.  If you’re a seasoned festival-goer, reading the festival guide will catch you up on any policies that may have changed since last time.

Your Packing List

Thoughtful organizers will include a sample packing list with your registration materials. Read this document carefully—they know from experience what items people tend to forget (or are very happy to have brought). You can add or subtract from the recommended packing list but be sure to include everything you will need for your comfort and safety. Sunscreen, closed-toe shoes, first aid, and plenty of food and water are must-haves.

Once you’ve covered the necessities, think about what else you might want to bring to make your Pagan camping experience memorable. This secondary list could include garments for ritual or revel, musical instruments, magickal tools, a travel altar, special food or drink to share, or items for sale or barter. (Read more about festival extras in "What to bring to a Pagan festival: Your other packing list.")

If you know any frequent attendees, it’s a good idea to ask them what they can’t live without at the festival. As you attend more events, you’ll get a feel for which items you actually use, and which just take up space.

One more packing tip? Always scan the festival schedule, if it’s available in advance, for events that interest you. It may be your one chance to bring your drum to an expert’s drum-tuning workshop, or have a favorite book signed by the author. At the very least, you might want to pack a yoga mat (or chair/cushion) and a notebook to take full advantage of an awesome lineup of classes.

Clothing-Optional Festivals

Many Pagan festival guides contain two big, nerve-wracking words: “Clothing optional.” But really, it’s no big deal. A clothing-optional festival is not like a nude beach where nudity is required. Your clothes will not be confiscated at the gate. Basically, it just means you have the choice to wear as much or as little clothing as you like.

Being nude (or “skyclad”) for ritual was once common among traditional Wiccans. When you’re nude, you’re exactly as you came into this world: Vulnerable, and free of markers of status, education, and wealth. It’s supposed to put ritual participants closer to Nature and on equal footing with each other.

Of course, you will also see non-ritual nudity at a clothing-optional festival. Being naked is fun and a little taboo—it reminds you that you’re miles away from mundane life. It’s convenient. There’s less laundry to do when you get home, and you don’t have to worry about being modest while putting on sunscreen or drying off from a shower. And sometimes it just feels great to have the sunlight or firelight on your skin. Nudity at festival isn’t sexual—it’s an expression of our connection to Nature and our (temporary) freedom from certain social constraints.

What about minors? Some parents have concerns about bringing kids to a festival where they will see nude adults. If you feel that it’s not age-appropriate or that it might prompt embarrassing questions, you can always leave the kids at home or wait until they’re a little older. The festival may prohibit minors from being nude, for their own safety and to comply with state laws.

Whatever your festival’s clothing policy is, read it and follow it carefully. The festival may require you to cover up in certain areas (such as the kitchen or front gate), or while you’re working your volunteer shift. Shoes are a good idea, always. Photographing nude people is a no-no, unless you have their express permission. Use good manners and understand that nudity is not a come-on or invitation for sexual activity.

What are some naked-person etiquette tips? Most of it will be obvious once you arrive, but here’s a few bit and pieces (heh): Keep your eyes above the shoulder area when you’re speaking to someone. Don’t compliment someone’s body part that is usually covered by clothing, unless you’re already good friends. Take care of yucky bodily functions/grooming in private. Bring a towel or sarong to put between your butt and someone else’s chair. There’s no such thing as a bad tattoo (when you’re talking to its owner).

While it’s normal to be nervous about being nude in front of strangers, you can always cover up if you want to. Nobody should hassle you about wearing clothes—they will just assume that you like clothes. Depending on the weather, it may be more practical to wear a couple of layers anyway.

One more point about nudity: Unfortunately, even at Pagan festivals, you will likely hear some grumbles of, “That person/those people should wear clothes—nobody wants to see that.” This is a version of the icky cultural assumption that only conventionally attractive, fit, young bodies are worthy of display. Forget about it if you can. Every body is a miracle contraption of trillions of cells working together—every body is beautiful. Scars and fat and hair and wrinkles are part of life. Unless you have a communicable disease and being nude would endanger the people around you, don’t let anyone make you feel like you “should” cover up.

Booze and Drugs

Refer to the festival’s policy on substances and heed it. Alcohol is a part of most Pagan festivals. But a few are dry, due either to local ordinances or the organizers’ choice. If you decide to attend, that means you’re agreeing to abide by the substance policy.

If you do drink, bring enough to share. Beer, wine, and liquor are three great ways to make new friends! However, always respect someone’s decision not to drink (or not to drink with you).

Be safe: Drinking at festival is different from drinking at home. Lots of factors affect how your body deals with alcohol. Heat, cold, dehydration, sleep deprivation, caffeine, and magickal energy can all warp your perception of how messed up you are. Hazards await the careless over-indulger: Uneven terrain, sunburn, thorns and brambles, snakes and critters. Don’t drink so much that other people have to spend their festival dealing with your drunk ass. Don’t give alcohol to minors. Don’t go full-tilt on Thursday or Friday. No matter how excited you are to be among family, a bad hangover or an embarrassing night will ruin the whole rest of your weekend.

Drugs are a part of festival culture—especially marijuana. If it’s legal where you are, awesome! If it’s not, please remember that getting busted puts you at risk of being kicked out, and the festival organizers at risk of losing their event, land, and liberty. No, it’s not fair—but it’s not the festival’s job to fight the man for you. Follow the rules, potheads, or at least be discreet.

Some party drugs can be very risky, especially when combined with heat and dehydration. If you must indulge, have a buddy to watch out for you. Locate the safety tent/building when you arrive, just in case you overdo it and need assistance.

Weapons

Leave ‘em at home or locked in your vehicle. Seriously, there’s no reason to bring a weapon to festival. Wiccans talk about “perfect love and perfect trust” and that is exactly the right attitude to bring to festival. Exceptions: It’s a blade that’s part of your ritual equipment, or you’re camping in an area where wild animals are a threat.

Animals

Most Pagan festivals do not allow pets. A minority do—they may or may not charge admission for pets. All festivals, even those on private property, are required by United States law to allow service animals. The required documentation for bringing an animal to a festival varies between festivals and between states.

As Pagans, we love our animals. They are our familiars, our companions, and (in some cases) as close to us as family. Many Pagans just can’t imagine leaving their animals at home during a vacation (or can’t afford to arrange for their care.) The result is that the animal policy is a big point of contention at literally every event I’ve ever been involved with.

Pet owners, be reasonable. An outdoor festival is no place for most household animals. Extreme weather, insects, venomous creatures, loud music, and long car trips are detrimental to your pet’s health and happiness. “But my pet loves camping!” you say. Fine. But a festival is not your private campground—it’s shared space. As much as you may love your animal, you will almost certainly be camping near some people who don’t.

Pet policies exist in part to protect the festival organizers from liability and extra work. Humans are arguably the hardest animals to wrangle…but adding a bunch of dogs, cats, goats, ravens, and snakes to the mix doesn’t make the job easier. Pet waste is gross and a health hazard. A dog who is a total sweetheart at home can become unpredictable when surrounded by hundreds of strangers (and their animals). And event staff aren’t trained to take care of your pet should he or she need emergency care.

Service animals: It is illegal for the festival to deny entry to a service animal, or to charge you a fee for bringing it. However, you are responsible for making sure that you have the right documentation (vaccination records, etc.) and that the service animal is clean and well-behaved. Be prepared to provide for all its needs for the duration of the festival. If possible, let the organizers know in advance that you will be traveling with a service animal so they can make the check-in experience as smooth as possible for you both.

Don’t bring a pet and call it a service animal if it hasn’t been trained to provide a service to a person. That’s selfish and misleading and it hurts people who are truly dependent on service animals for their well-being.

Getting There

Plan to arrive at the festival while the gate is staffed (duh). Your ticket confirmation should include the recommended arrival time(s) and gate hours. If you arrive too late, you may be turned away until the next morning. If possible, try to get to your site before sundown so you don’t have to set up camp in the dark.

Yay! You’ve arrived, hopefully with everything you need for the trip. It’s a good idea to take note of the nearest grocery store, gas station, and pharmacy on the way in, just in case there’s something you forgot. Larger festivals sometimes have a commissary where you can purchase sundries like ice, firewood, and batteries.

The friendly gate volunteers will help you sign your paperwork and get checked in. You’ll get your wristband, lanyard, stamp or sticker. If you’ve reserved a campsite, they’ll show you where it is on a map or with a pointy finger. The gate staff may also give you an overview of the festival’s rules and activities, but since you already read the festival guide cover-to-cover, you can just smile cheerfully and sign on the line.

Hooray! You made it! Now it’s time for a selfie at the gate!

Photography

But wait…your festival will probably have a published photography policy and/or photo releases for you to sign. They will tell you if you can/can’t take photographs, if there will be staff photographers present, and if your image can be used in marketing. Review all this information carefully.

Some Pagan festivals ban photography outright. This policy originates in the Bad Old Days, when people could lose their jobs, kids, and respectability for being “outed” as Pagan. As digital cameras get smaller and more omnipresent, photo bans are predictably becoming harder to enforce. Still, privacy is very important to many Pagans, and flouting the rules can get you shunned or even ejected from the festival. If photography is allowed, ask permission before capturing someone on camera, and ask again before posting it to social media.

It’s generally considered bad manners to photograph a ritualist or presenter without checking first. (Musicians and dancers booked by the festival are arguably a different case, but it still doesn’t hurt to ask.) Many workshop presenters and participants find photography distracting. Also, someone who is clergy or a teacher in the Pagan community might not be “out” in their mundane life. On the other hand, that person may jump at the opportunity to get some candid photos for their portfolio or website. Just be considerate.

How about selfies? Even if you’re just taking photos of you and your crew, be mindful of who and what is in the vicinity. Today’s hi-res cameras can capture personally identifying details (like faces and license plates) even in the distant background. Be sure to crop or obscure anything that shouldn't be shared publicly.

Setting Up Camp

Some Pagan festivals have reserved campsites, but many are first come, first choice. Tent campers and car campers may be directed to different sites. If you’re not sure where you’re allowed to camp, ask at the gate to be directed to open camping spots.

The ideal campsite has flat ground, good drainage, and is a safe distance from hazards like roads and fire pits. While it’s still daylight outside, look around for anything that could mess up your camping experience: Holes, brambles, anthills, wasp nests, and barbed wire, just to name a few. (Hard-earned wisdom: Placing a tarp under your tent will help keep it dry inside and prolong the life of your tent floor. Keep your rain fly nearby in case of surprise showers.)

Camping with a large party? Arrange to arrive on site at the same time of day. It’s bad manners to try and reserve multiple campsites at a busy campground. Contain your vehicles, chairs, ice chests, tents and tarps within a reasonable amount of space for the number of campers you have in the group. If you want more privacy, choose a more remote area.

All set up? Awesome! If you see your neighbors struggling, it’s good will to offer to lend a hand. But don’t go all Boy- or Girl Scout on less-experienced campers (unless somebody’s doing something really dangerous, like pitching their tent on the edge of a cliff). They may prefer to set up camp their own way and at their own pace.

If the festival requires you to move your vehicle to a parking area, the time to do that is after you’ve finished setting up camp, and before moving on to other activities. Moving vehicles before sundown is safer and it clears space for latecomers.

Vehicles

If you plan to camp in your car or RV, plan ahead. The festival may have different areas for car campers and tent campers, or even require a special ticket/permit to help offset the impact of vehicles on the land. Water and electrical hookups exist at some sites but are always very limited.

Respect the ecology and drive/park only in designated areas. Keep driving on-site to a minimum.

If you’re running a generator, be considerate of your neighbors and observe any posted quiet hours.

Headlights and exhaust from running vehicles are a nuisance—try to find somewhere else to charge your phone, warm your hands, or argue with your partner.

Check the forecast and think about your exit strategy. A couple of drizzly days can turn your parking space into a mud pit. If you have front-wheel drive, park with your front wheels on the driest, highest surface.

Car camping has a way of draining vehicle batteries. It’s a really, really good idea to pack a jump kit, or park in a way that another vehicle can reach your engine to give you a jump.

If you have a big truck, you may be pressed into service to tow vehicles out of the mud, or haul firewood or ice. You bought it because it’s heavy-duty, right?

Electronics

If you can leave your personal electronics in the car, do it! Seriously, nothing liberates the spirit like ignoring email, news, and social media for a couple of days. Some festival sites are still so remote that a phone/tablet/laptop can’t connect anyway. I bring a watch (yes, a wristwatch) to make sure I’m still on time for volunteer shifts and workshops.

Of course, not everyone has the luxury of logging off completely. You may have family or work emergencies that keep you tied to your phone. Or you may have apps that you need/want to use every day. Just be considerate of people who are trying to take a break from the little glowing screens. I believe the Goddess cries every time a sacred revel fire turns into a game of “look at this meme/look at that meme."

I know it makes me a grumpy old fart, but I have mixed feelings about the prevalence of streaming music and wireless speakers at some recent festivals. I love to celebrate with music at home, but I’m not sure it belongs at a festival where there are live performers and the (increasingly rare) sounds of Nature. If you do bring your own jams, be courteous to your neighbors and aware of any quiet zones.

Some larger festivals have charging stations for phones and tablets. If you take advantage of them, you're responsible for the security of your device(s).

Respect the Volunteers

From the person who checks you in at the gate, to the person who brews the morning coffee, to the person who makes you get down from a tree for your own safety (true story), everyone you encounter at Pagan festivals is a volunteer. Nobody is getting paid, nobody is doing it for praise or glory. They’re doing it out of love—love for you, love for the dozens or hundreds of others that are there hoping to have a good time. Feel that love, and return it.

If you’re assigned to a work shift, don’t shirk it. Be on time, cheerful, and ready to do whatever (reasonable) thing you’re asked to do.

If you have a problem, stay calm and handle it. It may take a few tries to find the person who can address your concern. Be patient. There are few issues that can’t be solved with communication and compromise.

Practice Ritual Etiquette

Festivals attract people with varying amounts of ritual experience. Whether it’s your first public ritual or your 1000th, good ritual behavior makes the festival more magickal for everyone.

I’ve written a more in-depth article on ritual etiquette, but here are the main points:

Be on time.

Silence your phones/pets/children.

Practice good personal and energetic hygiene.

Touch people and ritual objects only if invited.

Participate (if it is your will).

Don’t be an asshat.

Respect the Presenters

This topic is related to ritual etiquette. But I feel like it deserves its own section.

The event program will contain events presented by folks with a wide variety of backgrounds and opinions. I’d like to think that people don’t comb through it just looking for a presenter to hassle, but I’d be wrong. This issue has come up at a lot of festivals recently, especially in connection with gender- and culturally-specific rituals and workshops.

Respect the presenters. The presenter is also a volunteer (usually), and for the moment, they have the floor. You don’t have to agree with everything they say or participate if you don’t want to. But by being there, you’re agreeing to be silent while they’re talking and respectful of their time.

Let me be clear: It’s never okay to exclude people who want to participate in an open workshop or ritual. Presenters who do that are wrong and are on the wrong side of history. Presenters who create content with the intention of shutting people out need to take a long, hard look at their motives before they can presume to call themselves teachers or priests or priestesses. It’s not wrong to call these folks out, or to stay away from content that you find exclusionary, appropriative, backwards-thinking, or biased.

But…it’s also a jerk move to hijack someone else’s workshop/ritual and turn it into a debate on race, gender, or politics. It’s nutty to assign malice to a volunteer who is (probably, in most cases) just trying to offer up something that’s meaningful to them.

A workshop/ritual is not a democracy, but you can always vote with your feet. That’s not all you can do: You can write the presenter a message to tell them why they’re wrong. You can burn their book (or effigy). You can talk to the festival organizers and let them know what other events you’d like to see. You can volunteer to teach a class/lead a ritual yourself.

We’d all like to see injustice and wrong-headedness stamped out in our Pagan communities. But being a whiny obstructionist solves nothing. It discourages participation, shuts down dialogue, and results in an event program that’s sparse and bland (however inclusive).

Fire Safety and Etiquette

When the stars come out, the fire burns high! Again, the event staff will have the most specific safety information for your festival. When you arrive on site, you should be informed if a burn ban is in effect, the location of any public fire rings, whether individual campfires are allowed, rules for bringing/gathering firewood, and the location of emergency water and fire extinguishers.

The following guidelines apply to just about every Pagan festival:

The designated fire-tender (and crew) are Fire Gods and have the final say about everything that happens within the fire circle.

Don’t put anything in the main fire (even paper trash or cigarette butts) unless the fire-tender says it's okay. Don’t assume getting permission to feed/poke the fire once applies to the entire festival. Ask every time.

Be nice: It’s not the fire/festival crews’ fault if there is a burn ban, or a limit on the size of the fire, or other local restrictions.

Some costume elements (flowing skirts, hairpieces, feathers) make you very flammable. If you are flammable, keep a safe distance from the fire and be ready to stop, drop, and roll if sparks catch you.

The ring of ground closest to the main fire is reserved for dancers making their way around the fire. Sway-ers, smokers, standers, talkers, and drinkers must yield the right-of-way to dancers. Don’t crowd the fire with chairs and blankets (even if you are cold).

The drummers share top billing with the dancers as the fireside entertainment. Don’t block the drummers’ view of the fire. Don’t block the drummers’ view of the dancers. Don’t talk or play music so loudly that nobody can hear the drummers.

Fire-spinning, flaming toys, and fire-breathing require special safety measures and, often, a permit. Make sure you have approval before lighting up for a fire performance.

Don’t cut tree limbs for firewood, unless you are the landowner or manager. Gather deadfall only.

Be mindful of the direction of the wind and your fire’s clearance from buildings, brush, and other fuel sources. Keep water nearby (and a shovel, if you have one). Don’t build a fire bigger than you can control.

Put out individual campfires before walking away or going to bed. If you must keep it going, designate a trustworthy person to relieve you as fire-tender.

Going Home

And just like that, it’s Sunday morning—time to pack up and rejoin the mundane world. (Boo!) The festival will have a deadline for getting everyone offsite. Allow plenty of time to break camp and give out your goodbye hugs.

Many campsites require you to pack all your trash out with you. This includes food waste and any broken equipment. (Hopefully, you’ve managed to contain it in bags or bins for the trip home.) If the facility does offer waste disposal, have everything sorted and compacted as much as possible before dropping it off. Some festivals have recycling and composting available, but most do not. Don’t lecture the volunteers/property owners. Waste management is more difficult and more expensive in rural areas—if it’s important to you to recycle your festival trash, do it at home. Take a minute to walk your site (and your neighbor’s, if possible) for little bits of paper and plastic that may have gotten away.

An important magickal principle is the idea of balance, the giving and receiving of life force. If you have received something of value during the festival, try to find a way to return some of that energy. It could be cleaning up litter, thanking a volunteer, or offering a useful donation or positive review for the festival.

It is customary among many Pagan campers to leave an offering for nature spirits or Fae to help smooth over the disruption of tromping around in their space. This can be a sweet treat, a shiny object, a dram of whiskey, or some other heartfelt gift. Some festivals have altars or groves set aside for this purpose. Remember: If your offering isn’t biodegradable and/or left in a designated spot, it’s just litter.

Before you pull through the exit gates, look down and make sure you are dressed for the outside world. (It seems that every festival veteran has a funny story about forgetting this step.) I keep a clean and dry set of clothes in my car for the trip home. A crisp, folded t-shirt that smells like dryer sheets is an unbelievable luxury after a few days of roughing it.

Self-Care, or Surviving the Festival

How you spend your Pagan festival time is completely up to you. Whether you enjoy hiking in the woods, bouncing between workshops, or reveling all night and sleeping all day, there’s something for everyone. I wish you the most wonderful time at the festival!

However, I don’t want to overlook one important point—the festival life is exhausting. Pagan festivals nourish the spirit, but they can be hard on the body and the emotions. Breathe. Ground. Listen to your body and be compassionate to yourself and others. Pace yourself. Moderate your expectations.

Many people say that attending their first Pagan festival feels like coming home. Mine did, too. But let’s be honest—it also felt like wet socks, sand between my teeth, greasy sunblock and itchy sleeping bag. Not to mention nervous butterflies, sexual frustration, energy headache…you get the idea.

However strenuous the festival experience can be, it’s usually nothing that can’t be solved with a hefty dose of clean water and a good night’s sleep (in a real bed). Soon, you’ll be reliving treasured memories from the last Pagan festival, and counting the days till the next one.

Thanks for reading! Check out more articles in the archive.

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  • Nicole on

    Wow! That was very informative. I am very detailed, as well. I could type for hours on a subject, lol. I appreciate your time it took to type this. You remind me so much of…ME. I would love to meet you in person.


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