Recently I went to ‘Fire in the Mountain’ festival outside of Aberystwyth. Fab! The weekend before I’d been to ‘How the Light Gets In’ in Hay on Wye. Another fine festival, very different. And it occurred to me there must be a dozen festivals going on up and down the land that weekend and every weekend from April to October. Apparently some visitors to these shores are impressed by the festival culture we have in Britain. Although I’ve heard it said that worldwide there are a million and a half festivals happening every year! It’s not just us.
The festivals are diverse in location, theme and style. The focus may be different – literature, music, green living, storytelling, beer and cider, landrovers – but most have certain things in common. Often people are camping so roughing it, getting out of their comfort zone. It’s a chance to check in with a larger community of interest, to deepen contact with old friends and to make new ones. At many – ‘Fire in the Mountain’ is a good example – there are people of all ages, grandparents following toddlers, fathers carrying babies, older children roaming around. Festivals often achieve extreme beauty in the construction of gates, paths, sets, stalls, venues, sculpture, signs and decoration. They are always creative places with music, poetry, storytelling, comedy, art and craft. They often try out cutting edge methods of being low impact, of recycling and using renewable energy. They are good places to hang out, discuss ideas, take part in debates and workshops, learn new skills. They are, in short, experiments in Utopia. They have been described as petri dishes where the new culture is cultured.
The festival arises from the ancient practise of dividing time into the sacred and the profane.There is a timeless rhythm of alternating mundane and holy days. Our profane days are when we work, engage in business as usual, suffer the daily grind. But on our sacred days we step into the sublime. Once a week, in the Christian tradition, we go to church to be uplifted, to be reminded of our divine being, to be brought closer to God. We are encouraged to mend our sinning ways. Other traditions do it differently. Writing about the Mayans in 'Sons of the Shaking Earth' Eric Wolf describes the fiesta as ‘a work of art, the creation of a magical moment in mythological time in which men and women transcend realities of everyday life in their procession through the vaulted, incense filled church, let their souls soar on the temporary trajectory of a rocket, or wash away the pain of life in holy day drunkenness….'In Central Australia when the Anangu do their ceremonies they stamp the earth as they enact the dreamtime story of their origin, so becoming ‘who they were at the beginning of time’. This gives a profound strength to the soul.
The festival is the descendent of some of that. It carries the genetic thread of transcendence, of going from ordinary to extraordinary, of touching the sacred. It’s the child of the saint’s day and the church fete, the cricket game and the am dram show. And it is the child that ‘growed and growed’. Whereas town fairs and agricultural shows may be declining in Britain, festivals are booming. They are bursting out everywhere. With vigour, originality, and a wild, elegant creativity, festivals are pushing back the boundaries of the profane and everyday, expanding utopian practise into more and more spheres of life. Soon, perhaps, the balance will tip in favour of us living a more festival-like life. Festivals are changing the world from the grass roots up and the inspired visions down.
I'd love to know what you think.