NORTHAMPTON, MASSACHUSETTS –For Pagans who love to spend time celebrating the wonders of nature under sunny skies or dance the night away around a bonfire, New England in February can be disheartening to say the least. That’s where A Feast of Lights comes in. The midwinter festival, hosted by the EarthSpirit Community, is designed to be a “weekend of warmth at the coldest time of the year – a festival of community and hope, of tradition and creativity, of Earth spirituality and the arts, of community and hope, of tradition and creativity.” That promise was fulfilled, and then some.
While the temperatures outside hovered well below freezing, the hotel was comfortable. Some participants even took to the indoor pool, which beckoned from under a stupendous glass dome that allowed the winter sunlight to stream in and reminded swimmers of the warmer days to come.
However, the warmth of A Feast of Lights was better measured by the warmth shared between old friends and new acquaintances alike. Much of that was expressed in song, as longtime attendees raised their voices to join in familiar tunes, or teach the melodies and words to newcomers.
In that sense, “warmth” is closely associated with…
EarthSpirit does community well, and that fact shone through during the entire festivals. Music, as already noted, weaves its members together, creating and strengthening bonds in a way that touches a deeper part of the self.
So too was community evident in the Stag King’s Masque, the annual ritual and ball that plays central to this festival. This first-time visitor was captivated by the flow of the ritual as it moved from storytelling to chanting to the highly-choreographed mock combat, which culminated in the crowning of the Stag King. Easy-to-learn songs and wassails removed barriers to entry for newcomers. The look in the eyes of regulars made it clear that this was not a stale ritual, but something greeted with excitement anew each year.
One possible reason for that enthusiasm was the promise of….
This is a feeling that is sorely needed in this time and place, when bitter temperatures and biting blizzards curtail activities and threaten life. Hope was expressed in the sharing of memories forged at this and other EarthSpirit events. These stories of hope were told over the breakfast tables and in the coffee nook; through story and song about the role of winter and the promise that it always comes to an end.
At A Feast of Lights, much of that hope is rooted in…
Among the many attendees, one could find Wiccans and Hellenists, Heathens and Druids, people without a named practice and those who follow a path without a name. Despite that diversity, the underlying traditions common to EarthSpirit offered a framework in which different perspectives and experiences could be shared and compared in a safe space. An apt phrase of how tradition was shared here might be “share what you will, learn what you must.”
While it was impossible to attend every one of the many offered workshops, the overall event didn’t lose its cohesion. There never was a sense that attendees were experiencing vastly different conferences in the same space. This is perhaps due to the the venerable host community tossing its tradition of welcoming over the entire festival.
And, perhaps because Earth Spirit’s way is rife with…
This is manifested in music and song, in dance and the telling of tales, and in many other ways. The art expo, headlined by Martin Bridge’s eye-popping Vision Keys paintings developed in collaboration with Orion Foxwood, added color and life in contrast to the dull, frozen palette seen through the hotel’s windows. The ballroom was transformed into a mystical forest seemingly without effort. One could see spinning in the hallways, newly-minted divination systems being tested in the vendor room, and winter dance steps practiced in conference rooms that are more accustomed to PowerPoint presentations.
How this creativity fits into EarthSpirit’s large cycle of festivals was explained by one of the organizers, Donovan Arthen:
Rites of Spring is a big festival that’s about enlarging and deepening a sense of connection to the natural world. At Twilight Covening we go inward, to look forward to the dark time, and gather the skills we will need to survive. A Feast of Lights is a time to come and warm yourself, and share the tidbits of what those new skills have wrought. There are little groups and events throughout the year, but these are the focal points.
Like any festival where Pagans and other like-minded folk gather, A Feast of Lights was packed with workshops presented by people both well-known and not. The teachers shared their gifts and often learned as much as they taught. There were too many options one reporter to attend, no matter how intrepid. Here are two highlights:EarthSpirit co-founder Andras Corban-Arthen gave a talk called In the Spirit of the Earth. He shared stories from the nearly forty years that this group has practiced and sponsored events. Gathered among the long-gone Massachusetts Pagan Federation, a group of people, who would eventually form EarthSpirit, organized a Rites of Spring festival. It was one of the first outdoor Pagan festivals in modern times and it set the tone for the many which came after.
“I had the only drum there,” Corban-Arthen recalled. “No one seemed interested in a fire, but someone had gathered twigs from nine sacred trees, which we used to start one, and I drummed. Some people joined us, but others were almost repulsed, because it wasn’t in the Book of Shadows.”
He further spoke about his interfaith work and quest to find European survivals of indigenous Paganism. He also credited EarthSpirit’s reluctance to rigidly define the word “Pagan” with some of the community’s success. Another wise insight: “Conflict is necessary in community. How you manage it is crucial. The feeling that conflict is wrong feeds it through denial and covering up. Addressing it directly is the key.”Wiccan author Vivianne Crowley spoke about Wicca as a Spiritual Path, weaving in tales of her own experiences with various cards from the major arcana of the Rider-Waite tarot. From Crowley’s perspective, one is much like the Fool at the beginning of such a spiritual journey, progressing through points represented by Magician and Priestess, and nearly always facing a point where nothing seems to work any longer. She symbolized that moment with the Tower and Wheel of Fortune.
Her words spoke to a deep truth when she observed, “This is a time when people might decide that a particular tradition is not for them, and go looking for something else, when in fact if they worked a little bit longer, they might get through it.”
Among the many musical offerings was Until the Dark Time Ends: Songs of Winter, presented by Will and Lynn Rowan of the musical group Windborne. Those lucky few who attended were treated to a session which was part concert and part sing-a-long. The Rowans shared wintry tunes from throughout the centuries and the world over. Traditional songs, wassails and recreated boar’s head carols were intermixed with songs of the (original) Wild Hunt, ballads of lonely colonial Vermont winters, songs from Lithuania, Newfoundland and the Pennsylvania Dutch.
The Rowans’ voices, which blend like honey and hot tea, were complemented by a wide array of world instruments, several of which Will Rowan built himself. The set list, which include many opportunities to join in on songs familiar and new, reminded those present that winter is a universal truth for those who live above (or below) a certain latitude.
Winter is indeed a universal truth, an indivisible portion of the cycle of seasons which many Pagans acknowledge or revere. It is often unpleasant, sometimes even dangerous, but so long as there are events like A Feast of Lights held in the coldest days, there will be opportunities to dream again of spring.