(RNS) — A spirit of reunion permeated Sacred Space, a pagan conference held annually in early April. After a three-year hiatus, the event in Hunt Valley, Maryland, welcomed more than double its pre-pandemic attendance and, despite the host hotel’s broken air conditioning, was a huge success, said organizers.
“It was such an extraordinary blessing to be in the physical presence of our beloved community of magickal peers again. I know we all felt that,” said Gwendolyn Reece, president of the Sacred Space Foundation, the event’s host organization.
The indoor event is one of several traditionally held throughout the year to support the pagan community. After struggling through cancellations, lockdowns and low attendance, these events are back and, according to organizers, are bigger than ever.
“There was some critically important magick done during this conference,” Reece added, magick that hadn’t been done since 2019 — the last year Sacred Space was held, after being canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and then again in 2021 and 2022 as waves of new virus variants made hosting a large conference questionable.
“I am grateful that we have such a strong-hearted, dynamic, spiritually courageous magickal community,” said Reece.
The event shared space with another, smaller conference, Between the Worlds, which is hosted periodically as defined by astrological timing. While the smaller event does increase attendance, it only does so by 30%, according to both organizations. This year, Sacred Space welcomed 625 attendees, up from 310 in 2019, according to Michael Smith, the event’s registrar.
Sacred Space may not hit 2023 numbers next year without its partner, but Smith said that the board still expects growth. “We sold 112 early bird preregistrations at this conference for 2024. That is more than twice our usual sales,” he added.
Several weeks earlier, Minneapolis played host to the Paganicon conference, whose theme this year was “Metamorphosis: The Rebirth of Community.” According to the board, 1,060 tickets were sold, up from 960 in 2019.
“It feels like home,” said Becky Munson, who spoke to Religion News Service during the event. Munson is both treasurer and director of programming. “Everybody is here. There are lots of hugs. We are back.”
The annual mid-March conference was forced to shut down its 2020 event on short notice as cities around the country shuttered with the onset of the pandemic. “That was the most stressful week I ever had,” Munson remembered. “It felt like we were letting everyone down.”
In 2021, the board offered an online version to fill the gap. The Rev. Father De, a longtime Paganicon attendee and presenter from Florida, said, “Online didn’t cut it.”
“Not being able to see people, being that isolated, really hurt,” he said. He appreciated the effort but it just “didn’t feel the same.”
In 2022, the Paganicon board decided to return to an all in-person event, but just 550 people attended. Munson believes the low turnout was due to people’s comfort level about crowded indoor spaces.
“People weren’t ready,” she said.
ConVocation, the oldest annual pagan indoor conference, has been held in Detroit since 1995 and, as with the other events, saw early signs of growth for 2023, but unfortunately the weather had other ideas.
An ice storm blew in just ahead of the conference, knocking out power, forcing schools to close and grounding planes. According to the Detroit Free Press, the ice was “between a quarter-inch and more than a half-inch thick.”
Moira Payne, president of the Magickal Education Council, the organization that runs ConVocation, described the situation as stressful but added with a laugh, “It is February in Michigan.”
As ConVocation’s guests began arriving, the host hotel was already booked up with locals who had no power and travelers unable to fly out. Attendees were forced to share rooms or sleep in the hotel’s lobby. Some attendees couldn’t get to the hotel at all. Oberon Zell, one of the conference’s guests of honor, had to sleep at the airport, Payne said.
Despite the weather-induced chaos, the event pressed forward. “It almost felt like it was our first conference,” Payne said.
The weekend’s hardships, while difficult, drew people closer, added Payne, who ended up sharing her room with four other people.
“I saw people reaching out asking to help us. ‘What do you need me to do?’” Even nonattendees were pitching in and participating, she said.
“It was beautiful.”
Unlike both Paganicon and Sacred Space, ConVocation was held in 2020, just before the lockdown. At that time, it welcomed 926 attendees. This year, the number was only 661, but Payne believes the low attendance was only because of the weather.
ConVocation, she explained, sells nearly half of its tickets on-site, which was made difficult by the storm. Those tickets go to locals and others who drive in, and many couldn’t get to the hotel.
The board is not at all discouraged, she said, and has begun plans for 2024, which will mark the conference’s 30th anniversary.
“We are excited to be on the other side of (the pandemic) and back to making magick happen for others,” she said.
“I truly believe we will grow.”
Still to come in July is Mystic South, the youngest of these events. Organizers are already seeing signs of growth.
“We have seen a record number of presentation proposals and our early ticket sales have been higher than pre-pandemic levels,” said Nathan Hall, the communications director of the Mystic South.
In 2019, the Atlanta event welcomed 419 attendees, and in 2022 there were 345. The board has no idea what the total will be this year but, Hall said, “we are preparing for a much larger turnout.”
Despite the external challenges — be it air conditioning, ice storms or global pandemic — the renewed enthusiasm for these events speaks to their importance for the pagan community.
“These events are the only times of the year we all get together,” explained Lily McNamara, a longtime attendee of Paganicon and a board member of Twin Cities Pagan Pride, the event’s host organization.
McNamara added that Paganicon’s sister festival Pagan Pride Day, which is held in the fall, was noticeably bigger in 2022. McNamara believes this growth is a result of people being more aware of the value these events have in their lives after having been without them for several years.
The pandemic, McNamara said, “almost feels like (it) has revitalized our community.”
This article has been updated to correct the location of the Sacred Space conference. An earlier version of the article said it was in Delaware.