Somewhere in Maryland Heights, a beautiful blonde’s admiring husband watches her rehearse for her first daytime public belly dance performance. Elsewhere, a graduate of Parkway North finishes sewing one last Hawaiian shirt emblazoned with dancing robots. They’re getting ready for the 19th Annual St. Louis Pagan Picnic, the largest free Pagan festival in the nation.
“It’s the world’s best place to people watch,” said Karen Levine DeGuire, one of the festival’s 80 vendors. When growing up in the unincorporated territories between Maryland Heights and Creve Coeur, she never imagined St. Louis had such a thriving, friendly alternative culture scene. “When people outside Missouri try to picture St. Louis in their minds, this isn’t what they see,” she said.
Maryland Heights resident Jen Gratz LaRose agreed. She has attended the Pagan Picnic with friends for the last three years. This will be her first year performing. She said the crowds are so friendly she expects them to clap no matter what, but she’s still nervous about her parents watching her first major public performance since joining Ami Amore’s Exotic Rhythms Bellydance troupe.
“They don’t mind me performing here. My dad talked to me about Wicca and paganism when I was younger. He said it was nothing to be afraid of,” LaRose said. “I hang out with a lot of D and D people and Magic The Gathering people. I can’t say the Pagan Picnic people are gamers, but it’s a similar kind of crowd.”
DeGuire first stumbled across the Pagan Picnic 12 years ago on a trip to Tower Grove Park. She’s Jewish, and her husband is Pagan. The pair loved the festival so much they came back the next year as vendors. Her company, Curious Cat Clothing, sells handmade Victorian corsets, custom-made hats and Hawaiian shirts in improbable prints. When not selling her own wares, she shops the other vendor tables for everything from handmade soap to her favorite summertime strappy sarong dresses, which she can’t find anywhere else, she said.
“On the surface, St. Louis looks like a semi-conservative midsized city, but there’s a lot of subculture here under the surface. If you don’t know the right people to talk to, you’ve never hear of the Beggar’s Carnivale, the Gateway Burners or the Pagan Picnic,” DeGuire said.
Kat Anderson, who has sold jewelry at the Pagan Picnic for the last three years, said this is one of her favorite regional pagan events.
“The thing I enjoy about Pagan Picnic versus other pagan events I’ve been to is that it’s focused on the social aspect. You might not see someone for a year. When you do, it’s all about getting together and being countercultural.”
Actual pagans are easily outnumbered by other people who enjoy the festival’s atmosphere.
Parking anywhere near Tower Grove Park during the Pagan Picnic can be a challenge, but as soon as you turn off the engine, the car fills with the sound of belly dance music. As the sound draws you nearer, the mixed smell of fresh empanadas and funnel cakes frying at different booths draws you in.
You pass a group of men banging against one another with swords made from foam-covered PVC pipes. Crest a hill, and you find a man in full dress armor watching a woman costumed as an ogre as she paints a henna tattoo on the back of a girl’s hand.
More than 80 booths stretch out in an open-air bazaar selling everything from potted herbs to handmade soap to tie-dye dresses. A mustachioed man wearing a green mohawk and retro Atari T-Shirt leads a pair of leashed dogs through the park. He hurries to reach one of the four stages while a middle-aged couple in its Sunday best snaps photos of the Living Tarot. Most of the passers by who aren’t tattooed are sporting body paint for the day.
DeGuire said there is no one definition of a pagan. “You’re going to encounter several religions all lumped into one label. Native Americans to Norse mythology to Wicca. The specifics are different, but they all pay their respects to the earth and the cycle of the year.”
The festival begins with a ritual during which people open the circle and call the corners. This includes sending energy to the north, south, east and west while asking for influence and insight. When the festival ends on Sunday, there will be another ritual for closing the circle and giving thanks.
In between, Welsh Traditionalist Coven Plant Y Ynys Afallanau will hold a public ritual involving chanting and drums and Trisha’s Treasure Chest will perform the much anticipated Living Tarot.
Caitlin Moriarty, who has performed multiple roles in the Living Tarot throughout the years, describes it as an interactive exhibition and performance piece that allows local artists to share their interpretations of the Major Arcana of the Tarot. “It’s fun to interact with the audience and see how the artist’s depictions of the Major Arcana change from year to year.”
DeGuire described the bellydancing and Living Tarot as two of the picnic’s most popular events.
The rest of the festival includes 12 hours of live music in the Bardic Circle pavilion, a kid’s corner with plenty of free crafts for little hands, including making wands, crowns and rockets, 25 workshops ranging from “Tarot Basics” to “Tree Magic” and nearly seven dozen vendors and food booths for shopping.
Despite the controversial nature of the Pagan Picnic, DeGuire said the only fight she’d ever seen break out was between a pair of dogs.
“Sometimes people try to stir things up,” DeGuire said. “One year, we had a run-in with a Southern Baptist minister who started handing out flyers and telling us all we were going to hell. My husband walked over in devil horns and a tie-dyed yoda shirt, shook his hand and said welcome to the festival. He was nothing but kind. The minister really wasn’t expecting that. He kept trying to stir things up, but instead of taking the bait, everybody welcomed him to the picnic then ignored him.”
LaRose said while the crowd is obviously open minded, she couldn’t guess anyone’s religion. “You see lots of people in T-shirts and tie-dye. A good variety of people wear masks and costumes because they can, not in any ritualistic way. Nobody cares if you’re pagan or anything else. It’s not a big deal. People come to have fun.”
Pagan Picnic takes place in Tower Grove Park from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. If you miss it, feel free to see LaRose perform at the upcoming Steampunk Social or visit DeGuire’s vendor booth at Archon. Buy them a drink, and these ladies of Maryland Heights can tell you how to scratch the surface of St. Louis to reveal a whole new world.