Samhain Retreat Review: 'Hallowed Homecoming' Pagan Gathering
Welcome to Hallowed Homecoming!
"Hallowed Homecoming: A Samhain Retreat" in Triangle, Virginia was a howling success-- literally.
When I saw the Hallowed Homecoming website, I knew I had to go. I live in Florida, and it's been a while since I got to celebrate a fall festival anywhere outdoors that actually felt like fall. Let me tell you-- it was worth the 2,000 mile round trip.
Driving up I-95, I watched the scenery around me change from palm trees, to greenery, to multi-colored autumn in all its glory! When I got off the highway and approached Prince William Forest Park that Friday morning, it just took my breath away. This was exactly what I was looking for.
I was lucky enough to be one of some 90-ish people to be part of this retreat, and am delighted to report that it seems the organizers are making it into an annual event. As someone who has been to many, many Pagan festivals around the country, I can say with all honesty that this is one you really don't want to miss.
I went back to Hallowed Homecoming 2016; it was just as amazing as the first!
Location, Location, Location
The Missing Elements
Right off the bat, you noticed Hallowed Homecoming was missing a couple of things-- but in a good way.
First, it was missing vendors. I love browsing and shopping wares as much as the next Pagan, but commerce would have taken away from the weekend. Without the distraction of pretty things and counting money, we were all able to focus better on making friends and taking our collective spiritual journey together.
Second, it was missing children. I usually encourage Pagans to share their faith with their children and seek out child-friendly Pagan communities. But sometimes adults need time to themselves and to tend to their own needs. Children here would have been too much of a distraction; it would have inhibited adults-- especially the parents-- so that they could not fully let go and participate.
So if you ever attend, leave the kids, and the wallets, at home-- you'll be glad you did.
Rev. Selena Fox
Special Guest Selena Fox
Reverend Selena Fox was this year's special guest at the retreat. Most Pagans have probably at least heard the name. Rev. Fox is a pillar of the Pagan community and has been one of the trail blazers of the Pagan Revival since the early 1970s. She has done much advocating for religious freedom-- including fighting for the rights of fallen Pagan soldiers to have a pentacle symbol on their government-issued grave markers or plaques honoring the deceased.
Rev. Fox may be best known for establishing Circle Sanctuary, one of America's first Pagan centers and Wiccan churches, and for founding Pagan Spirit Gathering, one of the oldest festivals.
Body Warmers-- Don't Leave Home Without Them!
My Experience: Day 1 Arrival
A few day-trippers were present, but most were there for the weekend and we lodged in rustic cabins that consisted of nothing but (surprisingly comfortable) cots surrounded by a structure of wood. Some people reserved cabins with family members-- others of us opted to bunk communally.
Participants left their cars at the gates and had to haul in their stuff (transport help was made available). We brought in some of our electronic devices but, for most of us, trying to get a signal was futile. Being cut off from our busy modern lives (not to mention the modes of transportation that might have tempted us to duck out and look for a Wi-Fi hot spot) really plunged us into the experience head-first. Without our devices and cars to bring our attention elsewhere, we turned it inward toward each other, and on the activities at hand.
As people trickled in throughout the afternoon and got settled, we met together in the main gathering hall. An ancestors' altar was set up and we were invited to put tributes to our own deceased loved ones on it to honor them. The atmosphere for this kind of retreat could not have been more perfect.
One thing I purchased ahead of time was a package of hand, body and toe warmers-- which was presented to me upon registration. That first day, the weather was unseasonably warm-- it felt like being back in Florida! I wondered if I'd wasted my money on them, but figured I could always find a use for them if I brought them home.
Being as anal as I am about organization, I headed to my cabin and set up house in my little corner for the weekend. Then I meditated a bit to attune with the land and make peace with the local nature spirits-- it was not hard to enter a spiritual frame of mind in that setting at all. When I was ready, I headed down to the main dining hall to mingle and observe.
We gathered for the opening ritual in the evening, and a circle was cast over the entire campsite. It would stand for the weekend to keep us in a safe and sacred space for the entire retreat. This made the entire weekend just one long ritual, where magic would surely happen.
They also lit the hearth fire for the weekend. That sacred fire was tended by dedicated fire keepers in shifts 24/7. What a wonderful backdrop for our socializing, workshops and rituals!
Hearth Fire Burning Warmly
The Ancestor Altar
The First Night
We got into costumes and attended a Witches Ball. With all those bodies and the raging fireplace, it was hot-- what happened to that autumn weather I was seeking? Oh well-- no complaints. We just fanned ourselves and stepped outside for a bit of a breeze when it became too much to take inside. People were busy making new friends and settling into the festivities.
But at Hallowed Homecoming, it seemed like only the nicest people decided to come together. Even though I showed up alone, I was never lonely. I was welcomed by anyone I approached, or any table where I joined others. I immediately began to feel comfortable and very at home. There was truly a spirit of goodwill in the air.
We ate a delicious buffet dinner-- if you were vegetarian, vegan, a meat-eater, gluten-free or had allergies, you wouldn't have a problem. There was something for everyone.
We didn't have to worry about a thing. A staff of dedicated, experienced and caring volunteers went above and beyond the call of duty to ensure everyone was comfortable, well fed, and that everyone's needs were being met. Participants also lent a hand, signing up for volunteer shifts to pitch in. If things behind the scenes were not running like a well-oiled machine, you'd never know it as an attendee. It was like this the whole week-end.
After helping out in the kitchen and enjoying some of the drumming, I headed back to my cabin at 2 a.m., and met my roommates-- two lovely women who decorated our little cabin festively for the season. I quickly and easily dozed off and slept soundly through the night.
Day 2: A New Day
Saturday was the only full day of the retreat, so it was loaded with activity! I started out early to the dining hall. It was overcast and rainy, and getting quite cold-- but that didn't dampen any spirits-- our hearth fire was still burning brightly, and hey-- I had my body warmers, which worked like a charm!
After a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs, I sat in on a workshop by Rev. Fox entitled 'Journeying to Ancestral Places'. It was delightfully entertaining as well as informative. We learned about different kinds of ancestors, and different ways to connect with them. We shared experiences and Rev. Fox led us into a meditation to help us connect with those ancestors. A jovial woman with flowing silver hair, twinkling eyes and a voice that booms with wisdom and power, it was truly a pleasure to hear her speak and meet her.
After lunch there were more workshops-- I only wish I could have attended all of them, but some took place back-to-back. While I sat in on one workshop, there was a knock on the door-- it was people from another workshop come a-wassailing, complete with Mari Lwyd (a Welsh tradition). They sang a folk song and ran through the room reveling before making their exit. What a fun and festive surprise!
But nothing prepared us for the surprises that were in store!
The Samhain Feast
The Big Night
When we arrived at the dining hall, it was closed up tight with staff working busily inside. We didn't know what they were doing, but I don't think anyone could have guessed if they tried.
When they threw open the doors to welcome us in, it was a spectacular sight. Our fire was blazing in the fireplace, with an offering altar set up before it. The walls were draped with black paper, closing out the chill. The tables were draped with white cloths and black table runners. Along the runners were apples, water pitches and white miniature string lights that illuminated the room like fairy lights. I would not have thought that the old rustic dining hall cabin could have been made to look so formal and breathtakingly beautiful in the space of a couple of hours!
What a treat it was to be served a sumptuous meal in that atmosphere, sitting in the warm room among new friends. We toasted to the ancestors, and to all the wonderful people who put together this retreat for us.
Then we all scattered to get ready for the main ritual. We met in a central location. It was starting to get very very cold. It was no longer raining, but the chill went to the bone and the sky was shrouded with a covering of gray clouds. We stood in the dark in a circle and the journey commenced.
I could probably write a thousand more words describing the ritual itself-- but any words would fail to truly do it justice. Suffice it to say, we were drawn into an amazing journey together that was powerfully moving. We were led through dark forest paths lit by glow sticks to different locations where souls were moved, spirits were stirred and emotions were churned.
One very intense part I will mention is that we were led into keening-- that is, the Scottish tradition of wailing in grief for the dead, as well as for each other. An eerie chorus of howls and moans rose in the darkness. In my experience (and as I found out later, others seem to have had similar experiences), such an outpouring of emotion is usually frowned upon in western societies these days. In my family, we were always told we had to 'stay strong' at funerals, and not to 'make a spectacle' of ourselves by being too emotional. Keening together in the dark that night was a healing experience, a release of negativity that some of us had held onto for many years.
After the very intense ritual we gathered around a Samhain bonfire outdoors. I looked up over the clearing we stood in, and it was as if the shroud of gray was being lifted just as the weight of our grief had been lifted. Right above the clearing, the clouds had parted to allow a spectacular view of the stars and meteor shower.
I didn't even make my way back to the cabin until 3 a.m., and wrapped myself up like a tortilla in my blanket. It was so cold outside, but my heart was so warm and the bed was so cozy I slept like a baby.
Day 3: The Final Day
After breakfast on Sunday morning, there was another workshop by Rev. Fox, much of which was spent discussing the events of the night before. After the experience had time to settle and stew, we were ready to talk about it and make sense of the things that we saw or felt. It was a wonderful means of closure. We talked about more ways of honoring the dead.
There was a strong nip in the air, but it the sky was clear and blue and sunlight streamed through the trees to warm us. There was another ritual to honor Pagans in the armed service, this one held under the sun in a field.
After some more chatting and bonding, it was time for the closing ritual. I was surprised at how it made me emotional when it was time to put out the hearthfire and take up the circle that had surrounded us all weekend-- I didn't want to leave! But I was gladdened to know that the organizers of this event are striving to bring it back annually.
I hugged some people goodbye and took with me some fruit and a baggie of hearthfire ashes for my altar at home.
The mood was lighthearted at times, and solemn at others. There was much laughter, and many tears. Being Samhain, these seemingly polar opposites were not at all in conflict with one another. We honored those who have gone before us, we grieved together, many of us resolved issues. We also celebrate the lives of our beloved dead, shared our stories, comforted each other and got to know each other.
This was by far the best-organized and best-run festival I've ever been to, and considering it was the inaugural event, it was impressive.
The only criticism I would have isn't even really a criticism-- just a problem. The location is not very friendly for the mobility-impaired. Having been in a wheelchair for a couple of years, I'm very sensitive to this. I realized that had this retreat taken place last year, even though I were out of my wheel chair by then, I wouldn't have made it through the weekend because I could not exert myself very much.
That's certainly not the fault of any of the staff, and they did everything they could to help everyone who needed it. If there were one recommendation I could give them for future events is to continue the good work, including putting their very clever heads together to come up with ways to solve the mobility issues so those issues won't stop anyone from enjoying this wonderful retreat.
I already told my husband that if all goes well (fingers crossed!) and there is another Hallowed Homecoming next year, that I plan to attend for sure.
Maybe I'll see you there?
2016 Update: Kirk White
Kirk White was the special guest at Hallowed Homecoming 2016. I just wanted to give a nod to Kirk for some awesome workshops. Kirk is a very intelligent guy with a lot of knowledge and experience, and he's extremely funny and entertaining. With those qualities, his workshops were a real treat to take part in.
During the big Samhain ritual, Kirk led us in a very powerful guided meditation to not only meet one of our ancestors, but to merge with them for a little while. This time, it was my dad who showed up. I had hoped to find an older blood ancestor I'd never met yet, but dad missed me and was insistent. Not that I minded-- I love him and still miss him almost 20 years since he passed. Getting to merge myself with his spirit for a moment was incredibly invigorating; I could feel him, I felt like I could see through his eyes for a moment and he could see through mine. It was a joyful moment for me until it was time to say goodbye, then sure enough the waterworks started coming.
What an amazing experience! I'm looking forward to raiding Kirk's books! And I can't wait to see who Hallowed Homecoming brings us in 2017!