In the area marked as Gaia’s Glen, a circle forms. The women, men and children in the circle follow the lead of Jenny Marrese and Kelly Schadt. The ritual, designed for families, specifically with children in mind, involves simple actions, gestures and invocations.
Marrese explains at the conclusion of the ritual that she and her friend Schadt developed the ritual together. It’s a celebration ritual they worked on specifically for various autumn festivals and pagan events.
“Creating a ritual is a deeply spiritual thing,” Schadt said. “The best rituals come from within-like poetry in motion.”
Marrese and Schadt are Wiccans from Rochester, and they make the trip to Syracuse yearly to participate in the annual Autumn Equinox Festival held at Long Branch Park. The Festival is held in conjunction with Pagan Pride Day and the Central New York Pagan Pride Project. The proclaimed goals of the Equinox Festival are education, community and celebration.
“Festivals and events like this are great,” Schadt said. “They give the public a chance to see who we are, and to understand us better. It helps clear up misconceptions and stereotypes. We’re not all crazed weirdos.”
The yearly event is free of charge and does more than educate the public. It also serves to inform local pagans of groups in the area. Workshops provide a mix of educational experiences available at the festival. Workshops range from drumming and dance to the properties of herbs and meditation. Rituals performed throughout the day invite participation from everyone, pagan or not.
Richard Canto, a pagan from Syracuse, expresses his own reason for attending. “It gives me a chance to meet with other like-minded people. It’s like a family reunion.”
A sense of community is important to members of what are considered ‘alternative religions.’ Pagans are in the religious minority, and Schadt admits that sometimes she feels isolated.
“It’s good to be able to feel the support of my fellow pagans,” she says. “And it’s good for the children to see that there are others who hold similar beliefs.”
Even though they fall under the umbrella term ‘pagan,’ there are many different ‘paths’ to follow. The Autumn Equinox Festival includes representatives from Wicca, Reiki, Lakota, Druidism and various forms of shamanism and spiritualism. Many pagans follow a combination of traditions.
Joan Kimball, a spiritualist and Reiki master, explains that there is not one true path. “God is to you as God-or Goddess-is to you.”
Kimball says her parents raised her Catholic, but that she felt Christianity failed to provide her with the answers she felt would help her along her specific spiritual journey.
Christine Keenan, who is with the Central New York Pagan Alliance, says Kimball’s experience is typical, as numbers of pagans in Central New continue to grow. Currently there are 75 groups registered with the CNY Pagan Alliance.
“I get a regular number of calls monthly from people who are looking to join one of the groups,” Keenan explains. “Our numbers are steadily increasing.”
Pagans attempt to foster good feelings in the larger community by providing help to the less fortunate. According to Mary Hudson, one of the organizers, nearly 1,000 people attend the festival, donating to the Food Bank and to Vera House domestic violence shelter, each year.
A few of the pagans reluctantly admit that some pagans practice the ‘dark arts’ and worship ‘dark gods.’ While they affirm the rights of others to follow the paths of their choosing, they insist that most pagans were well meaning.
“Most of us promote peace, loving and caring,” Canto insists. “There are even some Christians among us who practice some aspects of paganism.”
John Marcus and Adam Weigert, two men who travel from Canandaigua to distribute pamphlets each autumn to distribute pamphlets to festival attendees, deny that true Christians can adhere to some aspects of paganism.
“They worship the earth and other spirits instead of the creator,” Marcus explains. “It’s strange fires and sorcery. It’s idolatry, not true Christianity.”
Weigert and Marcus insist they are not protesters. They do not shout, or argue much with attendees.
“We’re just out here spreading the truth of Christ’s love,” Marcus says.
The Christians standing at the entrance to the festival do not seem to bother the pagans. Some take the literature. A few attempt to explain they all worship different aspects of the same god. Most simply smile and call out jovial blessings. After all, the festival is supposed to be a happy time, commemorating the harvest. It’s a time of giving thanks and making merry. It’s not just about education and community; it’s about celebration too.