Five Things I Love about… Renaissance Festivals

In the eyes of pop culture, Renaissance festivals are distinctly uncool. Pop-culture sound bytes from TV shows like Gilmore Girls and The Daily Show to advertisements for Free Credit Report present Renaissance festivals as places where only “losers” work or hang out. But one of the chief geek virtues is that we have never allowed mainstream disdain, born of myopic misunderstanding, to come between us and the things we love. My husband and I are proud Renaissance festival-goers. We make our pilgrimage to Georgia’s festival at least twice each spring, once with dog in tow for Pet Friendly Weekend (which my husband wrote about earlier this year) and once without. Last year we went to the Carolina Renaissance Festival in Huntersville, NC for the first time, and this year we went back; it promises to become another tradition.

So what draws us? Five things I love about Renaissance festivals:
Costumes. As a child I loved to play dress-up and I’ve never outgrown it. For the Renaissance Festival, as for DragonCon, I clothe myself in my most comfortable period garb (half purchased from the festival itself at various times, and half from Holy Clothing) to enter the other world. And here, as at DragonCon, I get a kick out of seeing legions of fellow time-travelers getting their geek on in flowing gowns, pirate coats and boots, kilts, chain mail, and fairy wings. I have a soft spot for the fairy wings, as they serve as one of many reminders that the Renaissance Festival depicts not the gritty, grimy realistic past full of rampant disease and infrequent bathing, but the past of fairy tale and legend where fairies and dragons take wing. When I don my gowns, I become part of the fantasy.

Shows. We go to the Renaissance Festival not only to step into the fantastic but also to revel in enthusiastic silliness. The performers we love to revisit present themselves with unflagging energy and good-natured humor that ranges freely from groaners to zingers. We delight in the randy antics of the Tortuga Twins (all three of them), the playful songs of Hey Nunnie Nunnie (e.g. “Five Constipated Men in the Bible”), and the agile feats and winking camaraderie of the Barely Balanced acrobatic troupe. Last year at Carolina we discovered London Broil, Don Juan and Miguel, and Zilch the Torysteller, whose Spoonerisms and sharp sense of humor quickly won him a place among our favorites. This year we got to know the husband-and-wife jester duo Fool Hearty; in their “Untrained Dog Show,” a treat-snatching Border Collie named Wingnut ran away with my heart. What engages us most is the very obvious love these people have for their work and for their audience.

Music. Music is everywhere at the Renaissance Festival. Talented instrumentalists and singers abound, offering a variety of tunes from sea shanties to Celtic folk songs to rock music with a Renaissance flair (the Lost Boys!). Some of my favorite musical acts are the most unorthodox; last year we heard a mini-concert on the glass harmonica, and several years ago we were treated to a performance by a masked master of the carillon, which planted the seed in my imagination that would eventually grow into my Novel no. 2, The Nightmare Lullaby. Like the acrobats and comedians, these musicians love their work, and one of their most delightful aspects is their authenticity. No AutoTune in sight!

Food. All right, nobody expects to eat healthy, or cheaply, at the Renaissance Festival. Yet all of us regular festival-goers have our favorite fair cuisine. My husband loves a good turkey leg and a chocolate-covered banana. I enjoy a concoction called a “strawberry pillow,” a fresh croissant topped with a layer of whipped cream topped with a layer of fresh strawberries. So far I’ve only found this drool-worthy treat at Georgia’s festival, but Carolina makes up for the lack with a bakery that serves super-moist cakes worthy of a high-end restaurant’s dessert menu. My sweet tooth is throbbing even now.

Shopping. I have to be careful with this one. Each time I pass a clothing shop I have to tell myself, “I don’t need another one.” My mantra is, “Look, don’t buy.” But looking has pleasures of its own, with all the gleaming, gorgeously-designed swords, adorable feathered dragon-puppets, bewitching incense, detailed and colorful fantasy art, and classic tapestries on display. And of course we have the sky-chairs. Matt and I try to get in at least five minutes in the sky-chairs each festival visit.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of my favorite parts of our first 2015 visit to the Georgia Renaissance Festival: the Pet Costume Contest, where Pomeranian princesses in conical hats and Golden Retriever knights in black armor strut their stuff. This year one of the winners was “Thor,” a tiny brown dachshund clad in the cape, armor, and helm of the Son of Odin. His black-and-tan brother “Loki” didn’t make it onto the podium, but Matt and I both got a kick out of his Harley-Davidson leathers.

Coming soon: a Renaissance Festival photo album!

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