By Derek May:
If you’ve never been to a Renaissance festival, you’re seriously missing out. Before I took the muddy plunge back about ten years ago, I had many of the same misconceptions and reservations that others have thrown back at me over that time: I don’t want to dress up. I don’t know where one is. I’m simply far too cool to hang out with cosplaying Dungeons & Dragons geeks. My response to that, besides a mace to the head, is that these unique experiences have grown into such massive and mainstream affairs that they’re now enjoyed by thousands of people annually across all walks of life. And with such an expansion, there’s almost certainly one within a few hours’ drive of you right now.
Here in Texas, we have no less than 4 major faires running at various durations throughout the year and across the state. The biggest by far is the Texas Renaissance Festival (TRF), a permanent complex spanning several acres near Plantersville, about an hour or so outside of Houston. Including this month, I’ve been attending this one with friends and family for several years, and over that time we’ve evolved from single day trips to staying overnight to making an entire weekend of it. There just so much to do, to see, and to take in that it’s tough to do it properly in but a day.
But what exactly IS a ren faire?
Well, in short, these gatherings allow for a celebration of mostly European-centric history and culture, spanning anything and everything from Ancient Greece through to the Victorian era. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be real history, as fantasy elements such fairies, wizards, and steampunk have carved out their niches as well. Hell, you’re even likely to find a Stormtrooper in a kilt at some point. The basic idea is escapism, to either pretend for a few days to experience the history of one’s ancestors—or simply a culture you feel a connection to—or perhaps to immerse yourself in your own fantastic reality. For the most part, it’s a safe environment where everyone supports and encourages one another in these pursuits, offering advice on costuming or historical accuracy, or simply celebrating the unique imagination and inventiveness of expression.
If that all sounds a little lofty, there are more earthly delights, such as shopping for products ranging from battle axes to fairy wings, delicious varieties of foods and drinks from all over the world (including vegetarian options), re-enactments of battles and jousts, and a variety of performances featuring music, comedy, or even falconry. Your level of participation is completely up to you, but there’s certainly something of interest for everyone. And if nothing else, a few cups of strong mead helps you get into the spirit of things!
But hey, like any event, there are some things to be cautious of. First, it can be pricey. The isolation of the event means they can upcharge for anything from bottles of water to handmade leather bodices. Expect to pay concert or sporting-event prices here for food and drink, and craftsperson prices for goods. And that’s on top of accommodation. If you’re driving a few hours from home, you might be looking into a hotel; but be warned, these business know the game at this point, and when to raise their rates. Some places, like TRF, offer camping options which, depending on the weather, may provide comfort or misery.
Which leads us to the skies: these are outdoor events, and thus subject to the whims of the clouds. It can be a crapshoot closer to winter in particular, even in Texas. Case in point, the past weekend we were there, we had the most perfect weather I have ever experienced in all my years at a faire. Clear blue skies, mild temperatures, sun and sweetness . . . at least on Saturday. On Sunday, however, the temps dropped nearly 20 degrees, the skies grew dark and opened up—drizzling if not outright pouring throughout the day—and the ground melted into muddy slush and shallows streams.
This all led to a mad dash to find a cloak to go over my thin Highland shirt and kilt before the dampness killed me. An hour of searching revealed the obvious: that everyone had the same idea, and all the good cloaks were either gone or over-priced. I finally did find a nice one at a reasonable price, and thus crisis averted—$130 later.
But it’s all part of the experience. I didn’t bemoan my new addition too much because that’s really what I’ve been doing for the past several years anyway, gradually adding pieces to my “garb” (as it is preferred to be called). My first few years attending were in jeans and t-shirts, and I had little interest in anything else. But those in the group I was with felt different, and their exuberance in dressing up, in joining in wholeheartedly to the experience, was contagious. But it’s not cheap, and unless you got more disposable income than I do, it’s very hard to buy an entire outfit in one go. And thus, I took the advice of most faire-goers and bought a piece or two each year as I could afford. And as of last week, I have about 3 solid outfits (2 of them Scottish, representing two of my ancestral clans) that I feel content with, and even got a few compliments on.
As for other accoutrements, there’s a significant mix of commercial and hand-made accessories wherever you look. Aside from clothing, there’s beautiful jewelry or wood and leatherworks. For the more aggressively inclined, there are swords, axes, and knives at every turn. But be warned, most everything is far prettier to look at than to use, and despite their appearance, not everyone in a tunic is an expert on what they’re selling. As someone who does research and train in historical arts, I can tell you there is a LOT of misinformation out there, so take it all with a grain of salt and verify information for yourself.
In the end though, facts must really give way to fun. These events are meant to be an experience, a respite from the cares of the modern world for a short time, and if you go too far down the rabbit hole you may just lose sight of that simple idea. So drink your mead and watch the jousters leap from their horses and eat a breadbowl of stew and take plenty of pictures with awesome people in amazing outfits (just ask permission first, please). Sure, you’re gonna pay for the privilege of stepping back in an interpretation of history, but it can be worth it for the escape. So let your hair down, grow your beard, show up in armor, a loincloth, a corset, or jeans; it matters not, dear reader. Visit the oracle of Google and implore the location of your nearest portal to a land of shared fantasy—I’ll bet a bottle of mead you’ll be back the following year.