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Pagan Growing Pains (Or How To Run A Yearly Beltane Gathering)

As the day of our yearly weekend-long Beltane event draws near, we look back to a decade ago when we first called our friends and said, "Hey, let's get together over the weekend and have a Maypole and a bonfire!" That's all very well and good, but as one's Pagan group grows, one starts getting ideas about opening this awesome event to the general Pagan public. That's when things get tricky. Not only does it mean a bigger budget, a bigger staff (many of whom will have nervous breakdowns by the end of the weekend and refuse to help next year), and a bigger headache, you will also discover that no matter how hard you work, you won't be able to please anyone. In fact, you won't be able to please most people.

            First, understand that no matter how many details you put in the event advertising, at least a third of the strangers who show up will not have read any of them. Some will simply have heard from friends that there's this great gathering happening somewhere in Town X on Friday, and they will amble in unprepared. As our Beltane is a three-day camping event, we always remind people to bring a tent, bedding, food, a flashlight, and bug repellent. Every year we have a certain percentage of people who forget one of those things, or who didn't have them and came anyway (even when it's the tent) and will want to borrow some from the staff. Some years we've had people who didn't bring any of those things. (If they are young and nubile, they may be counting on being able to seduce tent space or other amenities out of desperate onlookers during the gathering.)

            There is also the problem of the dissonance that seems to happen between people's eyes and brains when they see the words "Maypole", "camping", and "weekend" in the same flyer. Their eyes may be seeing the words "Bring a tent, bedding, food, flashlight, and bug repellent," but by the time it reaches their brain, for many of them the print has somehow metamorphosized into "YOU WILL GET LAID HERE." Then, when it doesn't happen, they are disappointed and declare the event a wash. There's not a lot that can be done with these folks. We are often tempted to put something on the waiver about how we are not a dating service for "hot Pagan-on-Pagan sex" - a term actually used by one person who came to one of our gatherings (and never came back).

            The Maypole dance is always a source of interesting conflict. If you don't hold one, everyone bitches. If you hold one, be prepared that over half the people who come forward to take ribbons and dance will not be coordinated enough to weave back and forth under and over the ribbons of the people dancing toward them - especially if some of those people are children under four feet tall. If you have someone ordering them around - "Under, over! Under, over!" you'll get complaints that you're taking all the fun out of it. If you don't, the Maypole will become hopelessly tangled and at least one child will get trampled underfoot screaming and need emergency first aid that will put a damper in the rite.

            The most important part of the ritual, when it comes to programming problems, is finding an appropriate May Queen and Green Man. Your choice will depend heavily on your reasons for having them in the first place. Are they in the ritual simply because people expect it, or because you're expecting them to embody some heavy-duty fertility magic? If the former, their anatomy matters less. If the latter, they really ought to be a fertile and anatomically correct man and woman, ideally ones who are willing to have sex on your land later that night (although not necessarily in front of everyone). There are several methods for choosing them:

            The Medieval Method: Have the men choose some woman as the May Queen, and then have her choose some guy as her consort. This makes the May Day celebration into a good old-fashioned adolescent peer-pressure beauty contest, in some cases fiercer than Miss America, with all the guys choosing the hottest babe and all the rest of the women feeling like it's high school all over again. Be prepared for the woman with either the most cleavage or the most leg (or the first one to take all her clothes off) to be chosen. After that, be prepared for her to spurn all the drooling guys who picked her, and choose as May King instead her ex-lover with whom she still has a torrid and dramatic ongoing breakup drama, even though his new girlfriend is standing right next to him looking daggers at her. Be prepared for him to look sheepish and accept, and then be prepared for his girlfriend to either storm off during the Maypole kiss and tell everyone on six Pagan email lists how much your event sucks, or else have a huge dramatic nervous breakdown later that day which will succeed in delaying all the workshops.

            The Prearranged Method: Start looking for an actual couple to be the Green Man and the May Queen some time ahead - ideally a loving, stable, heterosexual couple in their childbearing years who haven't been surgically sterilized. Don't get them signed up too far ahead, though - certainly not more than a month - because something about looking forward to having to play a sacred archetypal role together in public seems to give even the most solid couple about a 30% chance of breaking up, preferably the day before your event when there's no time to find anyone else. If they're not conventionally attractive, be prepared for complaints from the male audience that the May Queen is too fat, or too old, or just generally a dog. If they are conventionally attractive, be prepared for complaints from the female audience that you discriminate on the basis of looks when choosing a sacred role.

            The Tried-And-True Method: Find a couple that you know won't break up, and who fit the bill perfectly, and use them in the rituals for five years running, because you know they'll show up. Be prepared for a huge number of complaints from people who'd like to play the role, if only they hadn't been single and lonely for as long as this couple has been married.

            The Desperation Method: Pay a couple of broke, out-of-work actors to play the roles. Pay them extra to screw later.


            Be prepared for many people to have suggestions as to how the event ought to go. Be prepared for most of them to conflict with each other. Be prepared for the people with the most opinions to not be among those doing the most work.

            Here are just some of the suggestions we've been offered - some of them simultaneously inside of a week! - or that have filtered back to us from people who are plenty willing to complain, but not actually to anyone involved with the staff. Note that all my translations are marked "Possible"; this acknowledges that I really have no idea what's going on in people's heads...especially when they don't actually tell me.

"The $15 event fee is too low. I'd pay more for more amenities."
Possible translation: I can afford Pagan events at professional campgrounds for hundreds of dollars, and I'm disappointed that this event isn't like one of those. I want my blow-dryer!

"The $15 fee is too high for me. Don't you know that SCA events manage to hold all-day events, including big feasts, for only $10?"
Possible translation: I'm broke, and I don't want to do a work shift. Can you just let me in? C'mon, you can afford to let one person in for free!

"Why do I have to show ID at the gate in order to get a drinking wristband? What are you, all Republicans?"
Possible translation #1: If people find out that I'm underage, it'll make getting drunk/getting laid much more difficult.
Possible translation #2: I don't want anyone to know that my real name is Eugene Biltmore, not Talon Timberwolf.

"You need to be stricter about people showing ID and getting drinking wristbands! I'm sure that girl over there getting drunk with that guy is underage. She can't possibly be 21."
Possible translation: She's getting all the attractive attention! Quick, start some drama and get some of it back!

"You're not inclusive enough."
Possible translation: I couldn't get my SO to come, because he/she said it sounded boring.

"Are you letting just anyone walk in?"
Possible translation: I just saw my ex-lover show up.

"The rituals aren't traditional enough."
Possible translation: If there was a traditional ritual with a chosen May Queen or King, maybe I'd get to be one, and some hottie might get picked as my opposite number, and they might fall madly in love with me, and I might actually get laid!

"What's with the same old ritual? We did that last year! How about something new and different?"
Possible translation: I'm bored and want to be entertained. When I go to the movie theater, they don't play the same movie every time!

"You're incorporating too many traditions into the rituals."
Possible translation: I don't really care about any culture or tradition except mine. Why should I watch anyone else's?

"You haven't incorporated enough traditions into the rituals."
Possible translation: You missed my favorite three cultures!

"This event is too New Age."
Possible translation: You rejected my carefully reconstructed ancient ritual on the grounds that most people wouldn't be able to understand it without a textbook.

"This event is too hardcore."
Possible translation: I felt like I needed a textbook to understand the ritual.

"There aren't enough workshops."
Possible translation: I don't know any of these people, and I'm too shy to socialize, and I want you to provide me with something to take my mind off of that.

"There's nothing going on but boring old workshops."
Possible translation: They aren't about anything I want to know, and anyway, I want to party!

"Why do you keep the fire going all night? It's a waste of wood and just encourages people to hang out and drink all night."
Possible translation: They make me feel like I'm not cool enough to hang out with them.

"Why doesn't everyone stay up all night with the fire? Isn't it traditional to greet the dawn?"
Possible translation: I'm the only cool person left up in the wee hours!

"I really miss the way this gathering used to be, before it got really big. It was just a fun party with friends."
Possible translation: I want to be able to get drunk and whoop it up around the fire like I used to, and now the staff tells me to calm down.

"You can't go acting like this is a small gathering any more! It's gotten more professional and you need to act that way!"
Possible translation: The drunks around the fire are hitting on me.

"What's with the late-night drumming and dancing until all hours?"
Possible translation: I have no rhythm and I don't dance.

"There isn't enough drumming and dancing around the fire! It used to go on all night!"
Possible translation: Where are the half-naked gyrating chicks?

"What's with all the naked people? You know, too many Pagans put too much of an emphasis on sex these days. That's not what Beltane's about."
Possible translation: My thighs are too big for me to ever dare to take my clothes off. Besides, I can't stop staring at that naked butt over there.

"Why aren't people taking their clothes off, like last year? You've all gotten way too uptight!"
Possible translation: I want to see some naked chicks! But if I'm the first one to strip, people might think that I'm just a creep who wants to see naked chicks.

"Less meat at the potluck feast. I'm vegan."
Possible translation: Not enough people bringing food I can eat, and they sit it next to the roast chicken, which is gross.

"More meat at the potluck feast! Our ancestors ate lots of meat!"
Possible translation: How about some steaks? Yeah, could you buy about thirty steaks and grill them for us? I'd go for that!

"I'm GLBT, and I don't feel welcomed enough here."
Possible translation#1: The May Queen and King are a straight couple, and it makes me feel left out. OR Possible translation #2: No one here will have sex with me.

"This event is becoming too much of a GLBT event. As a straight person, I don't feel welcomed any more."
Possible translation #1: I'm not used to being a minority. It makes me uncomfortable, and besides, I don't know if that person over there that I'm strangely attracted to is a boy or a girl.
Possible translation #2: No one here will have sex with me.

"This event isn't family-friendly enough."
Possible translation: I want to be able to bring my kids and ignore them, and you're not making that convenient enough!

"This event should be more of an adult event. Get the kids out of there at night."
Possible translation: I don't want people's brats watching while I'm trying to get someone into the bushes with me.

"This place is a mess."
Possible translation: I don't want to clean up. I paid my $15 so I wouldn't have to, right?

"What do you mean I should pick up trash? It looks fine to me!"
Possible translation: I don't want to clean up. I paid my $15 so I wouldn't have to, right?

"You people are swayed by the opinions of dips who don't know anything!"
Possible translation: I told you my opinion on how things ought to be, and you didn't do it.

"You people never listen to anyone!"
Possible translation: I told you my opinion on how things ought to be, and you didn't do it.

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