On Odd Clothing And Old Clothing

What with the topic for last week’s entry already decided in advance, I didn’t get a chance to tell everyone what I did the day after Christmas, since unlike the Midnight Mass I attended that weekend, it didn’t really fit well with said topic. Mom and I went to Greenfield Village to attend Holiday Nights, when they keep the village open at night and have carolers and bands and other folks performing in 19th century period costume. We also got tickets to the Eagle Tavern dinner, where the servers and entertainers were also in period dress, including the “proprietor” who made the announcements and set the historical tone for the evening. Even after reading about mid-nineteenth century life in Bill Bryson’s latest book, it was still odd to spend time in a large room lit only by candles. After the dinner, there was a fireworks show, the first one I’d ever seen during the winter. All in all, definitely a great experience and one I would recommend to anyone.

I bring that evening up here in a Pagan context for two reasons. (Well, three if you include “SLG takes three weeks off from doing anything at this time of year and there really isn’t much else for me to write about.) The first is the issue of period costume in ritual. Though for us in SLG, I don’t know if it’s serious enough to use the word “issue”, since almost none of us wear clothing that we wouldn’t wear on the street. I always wear robes to any High Day ritual that I’m leading, except for Beltaine, where I deliberately don’t wear ritual robes to honor the topsy-turvy reversal of societal norms associated with the holiday. And Rodney has been wearing a handmade all-white outfit lately. But other than that, nobody wears anything that looks like “ritual clothing”.

And that’s fine with me. While there’s something to be said for dressing up nicely for ritual, or for any group outing, we’re putting on an open public ritual, and we want to have a welcoming atmosphere for new folks, especially the ones who have never attended any kind of Pagan event before. Having too many people in unusual clothing is, IMO, an excellent way to say “you don’t really belong here” to those new folks before they’ve even set one foot in our ritual space.

Also, there’s also the question of appealing to modern sensibilities while continuing the ritual traditions of the Ancients. We know that the priestly castes of the ancient Indo-European cultures often wore special clothing, like the white robes of the Celtic Druids or the togas of Rome. But surely the many people who attended public ritual didn’t all have ritual-only clothing for the occasion? I haven’t seen any evidence of it in my studies, at least. Nice clothing, sure – I’ve read descriptions of the beautiful brightly-colored clothing that the women of Athens wore during festivals – but not ritual-only clothing. I expect that most of the people couldn’t easily afford to have ritual-only clothing in any case. So when we look to recreate the experience of ancient ritual in a modern setting, why would we expect everyone to wear special clothing just for ritual? In the balancing act we ADF folk maintain between “what the Ancients did” and “what works best for us in modern times”, it’s always easy when one thing satisfies both, and this is one of this times.

Though I do think it’s unfortunate that some people look at ritual robes and think that those who wear them aren’t serious about their religion, that they view it as play-acting and they have to dress up to perform it rather than to live it. (As though the theater didn’t have its roots in religious ritual!) Okay, I admit I’ve seen some goofy outfits at ritual before, and I’d have preferred not to see them in ritual space, but that’s just my own sense of aesthetics.  But there’s certainly a case to be made for wearing ritual clothing that will get you into a proper mindset for ritual, and if that’s something you want or need for your ritual experience, then as long as it doesn’t scare the horses (so to speak), you should go with that. I know that wearing my robes helps me get into the proper mindset for leading a ritual, but then, so do many of the other things I do in the week before ritual, from meditation to writing the Order of Service to getting the car packed with everything I need to bring. They’re all part of the experience, and if I skipped one or two of them, the rest would still leave me in the right headspace to lead ritual. (Hmm, that might be a fun experiment for later, deliberately leave my robes at home and see how the ritual goes?)

Anyway, the second reason I wanted to mention Holiday Nights here was as a way to honor the Ancestors, specifically the Ancestors of Place. We in SLG talk about the Ancestors of Blood, of Spirit, and of Place a lot, and it’s easy enough to work out who your own genetic and inspirational ancestors are, but what about the folks who just plain lived in the area before we did? And even if you do know who they are, how much do you really know about what they did from day to day, what they ate, what they did for fun? While Greenfield Village is quite a hodgepodge of buildings from different places and time periods, the experience does at least get you thinking in terms of what their lives were like, and that’s an important part of honoring that one-third of our Three Kindreds. If you can’t get to Greenfield Village, or some other similar place or event, even a trip to your local historical museum would be a great way to do that!

I don’t know what next week’s topic will be yet. Since there aren’t any Grove events ‘til next Tuesday, I’ll have to write about something else that happens to me this week. Snow? Ice? Cold? More snow? Check back next time and find out!

Rev. Rob Henderson
Senior Druid, Shining Lakes Grove, ADF

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