TOWER GROVE – St. Louisans of all religions, creeds and spiritual practices came out to Tower Grove Park for the 27th annual Pagan Picnic.
The festival hosted 95 vendors of various pagan traditions. Booths offering tarot and astrology readings, gemstones, pagan literature and jewelry lined the path of the picnic.
Additionally, the event offered many workshops designed to help participants further explore paganism, such as “String Magic,” “Astrological Timing of Rituals” and “Paganism 101.” Throughout the weekend, many musical guests as well as belly dancers made appearances. The start and end of the picnic were marked by an opening and closing ritual.
The group that runs the Pagan Picnic is an open one. In meeting them, the first thing they’ll probably tell you is, “I’m a hugger.” Perhaps that sense of community stems from the fact that the original picnic happened 27 years ago in the backyard of Larry Brown and his wife, Cheryl.
“We knew there was a lot of people in St. Louis floating around not attached to anybody, wondering where their community was,” Larry Brown explained, “and there wasn’t a lot of community back then, so we had a party, and we invited a whole bunch of people, and they showed up, and we decided to do it again the next year.”
He said that the first picnic in their backyard was a potluck that drew about 50 people. The evening consisted of drums, fire, magic and even some networking.
“And now it’s grown into this,” he said, gesturing at the flurry of activity in Tower Grove Park, with nearly a hundred vendors lining the sidewalk.
Though Cheryl and El Bee, as they’re best known around the picnic, still attend and work at the festival, this year they’ve passed the reins on to Jessica Girard, who is better known around the Pagan Picnic as Maamaa J.
Girard began volunteering for the picnic about thirteen years ago, originally working as security and making her way up to lead the event this year.
Girard said she started practicing as a solitary witch when she was younger and felt a lack of community. Discovering the Pagan Picnic changed all that, and though she still isn’t part of a formal coven, the Pagan Picnic crew has really become her family.
River Higginbotham, the president of the board for the Pagan Picnic, said that the picnic was an important way for those who practice paganism to find community, but that it also was important for pagans to interact publicly with the non-pagan people around them.
“By being public, that began this journey that we’ve been on for the last twenty-six years of being a family-friendly pagan event in the middle of Tower Grove Park,” he said, adding that the picnic got guests from all walks of life.
Higginbotham said that he had been raised Christian but that in his twenties he began looking into more New Age spirituality, including tarot, astrology and other pagan practices. Since then, he has written three books on paganism.
Similarly, Girard was raised in a very strict Christian household as a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and now rejects organized religion. For her, one of the best uses of witchcraft is in cooking.
“You eat something, and it can taste really good, but you feel like, ‘This is homey, or this is important for me to have in my body.’ It’s because somebody has put some energy or something into it, wanting you to feel that way, and that’s something that I’ve always done and wanted to do. That, and I love rocks,” she added.
Overall, Girard said, the Pagan Picnic is an event that welcomes people of all religions, races and identities. Her goal with the picnic is to make it as inviting to every community as possible.
“We’re not scary,” she said of pagans. “We’re not here to eat your children. We’re not here to slaughter animals. We’re here just doing our thing and just trying to get through life like everyone else.”
The Pagan Picnic happens once a year, usually in June. For more information about the picnic, visit http://www.paganpicnic.org/.