A Renaissance Fair
A Very Old Tradition
In times past fairs were gatherings where people came to buy and sell their wares. While work was involved, fairs also offered people a chance to get out and meet people they had not seen in a while as well as to sing, dance and enjoy life. Larger fairs were often centered around the arrival of merchants from far away bringing goods from other parts of the known world.
Fairs were a common tradition in medieval Europe and the tradition continued and was brought to the New World. While more of a rural event, county and state fairs are found, usually in the autumn, throughout the United States.
Experiencing Life in the Past as a Hobby
The last half century has seen a rising interest in our past heritage. People with a passionate interest in the past have begun joining others and organizing groups where they can get together and share their passion for the area of the past that excites them the most. Today there are all kinds of groups organized around things like Civil War soldiers, Revolutionary War Soldiers, medieval knights, ladies and craftsmen, crofters dedicated to experiencing the life of their Celtic ancestors and even flying buffs such as the Confederate Air Force which restores and flies antique military aircraft.
People who go in for hobbies of this nature invest considerable time and money in making or obtaining clothes, tools, eating utensils and other things needed to live as the people they are imitating lived. They engage in extensive research on how the people they are imitating dressed, ate and lived in general. In addition to sharing the fruits of their research with others in the group, they use the knowledge gained to make period clothes, cook period food and engage in other every day living activities of the period they are passionate about. Of course they do all of this using copies of tools and materials from the period in question.
These are not casual hobbies but activities that consume the free time of entire families. Given both the time and money involved in such a hobby along with the increasing numbers of people being attracted to this hobby it is not surprising that an industry has developed to support it. In addition to merchants, who are often hobbyists whose history hobby developed into a business, which now sell tools, clothing, supplies and information needed for the hobby, there are also companies that organize fairs or large gatherings where enthusiasts and tourists can gather to live and celebrate the era of their choice.
A Medieval Festival
Among the oldest and most common of these events are the Renaissance Fairs or Festivals which began in the years after World War II and have continued to grow and spread. In America, the setting for these events is usually the Tudor period in England with the focus being the era of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and/or that of her father, King Henry VIII. WikiPedia describes these fairs as basically specialized theme parks. Like more traditional theme parks, these fairs have a fixed location with buildings and other infrastructure in place. However, unlike traditional parks, the fairs only last for a few weeks to a month. Despite the popularity of this hobby and interest among tourists seeking different experiences, the numbers are such that a month is about all the market in a given area can support.
In addition to their short season, there are some other differences between Renaissance Festivals and the more common theme parks. The first is that in traditional parks such as Disneyland, there is a clear distinction between staff and visitors with staff providing the entertainment and visitors being entertained.
With Renaissance Fairs the company that owns the property and sponsors the fair, provides the facilities and organization. Outside craftsmen and other vendors provide food and merchandise that fits the theme of the event. These vendors dress in period costume and many even speak with an old English accent. While they are definitely on the provider side of the business, most appear to be period enthusiasts as well. Then there are the professional actors and entertainers. Some are generalists who play whatever role they are hired for while others, especially dancers and musicians, appear to have chosen to specialize in this niche market.
Then there are entertainers and exhibitors who are professional quality but basically amateurs making their living in a traditional profession and pursuing this as a hobby with other enthusiasts who make up the group. Next come the enthusiasts for whom this is their annual reunion with like minded enthusiasts. Finally there are tourists looking for a different theme park experience. Some go all the way and rent period clothing (which is not cheap) while others are mainly spectators.
A Different Type of Entertainment
The entertainment is also somewhat different from that found at traditional parks. The food has a Renaissance flair to it as does the music, shows and shopping. The rides and games are also reminiscent of the middle ages. Then there are the unique games. Here you can learn ax throwing using medieval axes. If you are in to being insulted you can visit the Vegetable Justice booth where you can put your head through a hole in the wall and let people throw tomatoes at you. If you prefer to be a thrower, rather than a target, you can pay for some tomatoes and do the throwing. Then there is the arena where where you can watch the medieval sport of jousting.
Renaissance Fairs can be found all over the country throughout the summer and fall. In Arizona, where I live, there is an annual Renaissance Fair held in Apache Junction just outside of Phoenix in February. Years ago, when I was in graduate school in Wisconsin some friends and I attended a Renaissance Fair held just over the border in northern Illinois. Having a love of history, but not into reliving it on a daily basis, I enjoyed the visit but didn't get around to visiting another one until my wife and I decided it would be fun to visit the Fair in Apache Junction. While it may be winter in other parts of the country, February in Arizona is right in the middle of the tourist season and the weather is perfect so it is logical that the Fair be held at this time of year.
The Fair lived up to our expectations and hadn't changed much from the one I had visited in the Midwest three decades ago.
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