Considering the headlines that dominate news pages these days, who could blame us for craving a bit of escapism? Luckily, an avalanche of September festivals offers ample excuses to wear kooky costumes or to (attempt to) speak in charming accents, to relive the past or to leap into the future. Sometimes we just need a few blocked-off streets or patches of green to catapult us out of familiar surroundings and demand we get lost in the sights, sounds and tastes of another time and place.
Some festivals draw repeat attendees who share such a passion for re-enacting and re-creating it seems more a way of life than a weekend hobby. (Some of these participants seem, sadly, to have been born into the wrong century.) Other fests prove more laid-back—a mix of cultural authenticity and comical distortion. But common denominators? The beer’s usually a-flowin’, the people watching superb.
The season kicks off September 5 and 6 with the Virginia Scottish Games and Festival in The Plains, Virginia. I first attended this lively event a few years back (having just returned from 16 months in Scotland), with expectations, in hindsight, a bit too lofty. (Yes, silly me, I thought I would actually meet some Scots and hear some of those dreamy, melodic accents.) Instead I did find some authentic culture (cuisine like tasty yet feared haggis and steaming meat pies) sprinkled with a bit of stereotype (or perhaps slightly-fudged cultural truths, like the presence of England‘s Newcastle beer) and a few unexpected oddities (a parade in which kilted Americans showcased their plaid-clad “Dogs of Scotland”). But the atmosphere carried charm all the same. I watched proud Virginians sport their family tartan, sheepherders demonstrate their craft, Highland dancers do their joyous jigs and bagpipers echo the captivating drone of their instruments up into a piercing blue sky and out into the rolling Virginia hills. It’s Scottish culture with a twist, but a highly enjoyable day in the countryside all the same.
On weekends through October 25, the Maryland Renaissance Festival in Crownsville, Maryland, boasts some pretty impressive numbers: the second largest Renaissance fest in the country, the “large theme show” draws to its 25-acre “English Tudor village” 280,000 guests per season. The fair features more than one hundred thirty crafts shops, forty-two food vendors, eighty-five acres of parking and 600 seasonal employees including performers who joust, sing, dance, tight rope prance, recite Shakespeare and do just about anything else you can imagine. Thanks to on-site costume rentals, you too can be transformed into “The Lady of the Realm,” “The Monk” or a “Jr. Miss Wench.”
Arts fests reign supreme throughout September, giving visitors quick fixes of delicious, mind-expanding culture. September 12 brings jazz to Rosslyn and Silver Spring , transporting listeners back to an era when the genre ruled U Street’s buzzing, so-called “Black Broadway.” That same day the Arts on Foots Festival takes over Penn Quarter and the Alexandria Festival of the Arts turns Old Town’s King Street into an open-air gallery during that entire weekend. The list goes on with neighborhood celebrations in Adams Morgan (September 13, highlights include dancing from Bolivian folk to Cuban salsa plus live music) and H Street (September 19).
Other fantastic arts-based escapes? Try the DC Shorts Film Festival September 10-17 which screens one- to 27-minute documentaries, comedies, dramas, experimental and animated films by filmmakers hailing from 15 countries as well as from within city limits. President and Michelle Obama serve as honorary chairs of the 2009 National Book Festival September 26 which lures bookworms to the Mall with talks and signings by authors like Judy Blume, James Patterson, Paula Deen and Nicholas Sparks.
Then there are gatherings where sheer indulgence rules the day. Take the Maryland Seafood Festival September 11-13 in Annapolis’s Sandy Point State Park with a “Crab Soup Cook-Off” September 12 and Centreville’s Virginia Wine Festival September 19-20, where 60-plus local wineries offer samples, food, seminars and live music by performers like Lisa Simone. Believe it or not, this is merely a partial event roundup. So head on out there, and immerse yourself in someone else’s world for a day or two. Tis the season!