Outdoor Yule celebration and the Park Ranger

December 22nd, 2009

My family performed a small, outdoor Yule celebration ritual last night at Joshua Tree National Park in southern California. We wanted to make it a unique experience for ourselves and our children and it was wonderful. The picture on the left is our altar at the park. The experience we had made me think of an important topic that many Pagans and Wiccans are uncomfortable with. I know of some people who are afraid to do outdoor rituals because of onlookers or officials and I thought I’d share how we addressed this issue over the years (and this Yule as well).

The reason we chose Joshua Tree was because we wanted to be far away from people in a remote area in nature where we could celebrate with a lot of noise. We love to drum with our children and ring bells and chimes and we didn’t want to disturb anyone. We also didn’t want to be disturbed. Since most land (even remote, unoccupied land) is privately owned, we needed to choose a spot that we knew for sure was government owned and opened to the public to ensure we were not trespassing. The national park made a logical choice.

The way we have addressed onlookers in the past is to simply ignore them during the ceremony. When the circle goes up, make sure that it is strong enough that everyone present can focus on the ritual and not be disturbed by what’s going on outside the circle. We have not had problems with ruffians who wanted to disrupt the ritual in the past, as onlookers have been just curious. I think in most areas the fear of protesters and ruffians is over-blown (though I do understand that in some areas of the US, it is a very real and legitimate concern). If you have a problem with such people causing a disturbance, as long as you are following all rules and laws, you can call the police to protect you.

A larger concern for me is disturbances from officials, such as police, security guards, or park rangers. You legally cannot just ignore those people. Last night, a park ranger approached our family during the middle of the ritual. Luckily it wasn’t during a particularly intense section. We had to momentarily stop the circle and I approached the park ranger to greet him. I was very, very polite at all times, even turning my head-mounted flashlight off so as to not blind him. He shone his light in my face, but I ignored that, since he needed to know who I was and that I was not going to harm him.

He asked what we were doing and I told him that we were performing a family Wiccan ritual celebrating the Winter Solstice. I’ve learned it’s best to describe our activities in language that he will understand, so we did not use any Wiccan jargon during the conversation. He approached our altar and asked what various items were, which we politely described.

Prior to arrival, I made sure I knew the rules of the park, so we knew we were not violating any. These are rules such as not disturbing or taking any plants, animals, rocks or anything else in the park. Our candles were all tea-lights contained in jars to prevent the risk of wildfire, a very serious concern in southern California. It also had a side benefit of protecting the candle flames from the desert wind. We had worked to contain all of our belongings, including trash, in a small area to ensure that we left nothing behind. This showed the park ranger that we were serious about respecting the land.

The park ranger asked more specific questions about our liquids. We had blessing water with us and cherry-lemonade. Naturally, he needed to be assured we had no alcohol with us. Incense was burning (Dragon’s Blood, Juniper and Sandalwood), but he didn’t ask any questions about it.

We were conscious to make sure we were extra polite and respectful of the park ranger at all times. As a result, he left without incident after being assured that we were not doing anything to violate the park rules.

This interaction with the park ranger last night is typical of our past experiences over the years with officials who may approach us during outdoor rituals. It is not their job to judge the religion we are celebrating, as they are banned from doing so by the First Amendment. It is their job, however to ensure that all rules are being followed and that everything is handled in a safe manner.

When I’ve seen Wiccan and Pagan groups have problems with the police or park rangers, it is normally because they were either not following all rules. For example, many parks may ban open flame, alcohol, or weapons such as athames or swords. Otherwise, it is because not everyone was quiet, polite and respectful to the officer. If you get defensive, then they will think you are trying to hide something. Just keep your cool and silently ask your Gods and spirits to help you show them that they don’t need to concern themselves with your ritual.

Luckily, Pagans and Wiccans worship the earth and would not leave trash behind, which is a very major concern for park rangers. This reputation for respect and honoring the land and the rules helps the rangers understand us better and makes it easier in the future to hold outdoor rituals without disturbance.

My hope is that Pagans and Wiccans will become more comfortable holding outdoor rituals. We are a nature-loving, earth-worshiping group of religions and we are spiritually most at home in the outdoors. It is only natural that we should hold our worship services outdoors whenever practical, knowing that we can confidently handle any disturbances that may occur. As our reputation for respect and honor becomes more well-known in the police departments and park ranger stations, we should experience less and less disturbances from officials.

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