Many festivals lie ahead as spring and summer return and the weather grows (if sporadically and, at times, contradictorily) warm once more. I’ve been to quite a few pagan gatherings myself; most were so-so, others were absolutely awful - and a great many were a pleasure to attend. Let me review the things the most successful hosts and hostesses had obviously considered so that you can better plan your own future gatherings - or just be better prepared to find the gatherings you’ll most enjoy and enjoy them the most.
First off, you’ve got to consider the weather (including factors like humidity and windspeed) when planning a gathering - especially given that this is the season of outdoor gatherings. Find a few credible meteorology reports so you can avoid inclement weather - but also remember that hazards can arise on the seemingly nicest of days. For instance, planning a ritual at noon on the summer solstice in a desert landscape with no cover from the sun might sound like fun… until your guests start dropping from heatstroke.
You’ve also got to consider the effects of your group on any natural habitat where you meet. It isn’t enough to make sure your guests feel at home; all the flora and fauna around you should also - especially since it really is their home. If you don’t take your environment into account, your energy won’t flow as well, and neither will your guests’. And don’t just consider direct effects like trampling plants or leaving litter behind; factors without direct or observable results - such as noise pollution, the presence of cellphones or the pollution exuded by vehicles - must also be taken into account.
A related concern is that of the legalities of your gathering. You’re probably fine on private property, assuming you have the full permission of all owners to do whatever you’re planning to do. Public property can be different, so make sure you have all the necessary permits and permissions - even at public parks and campgrounds.
And, please, let the people you’ve invited know your purpose(s). Since paganism is often associated with nature, balance, tolerance, polytheistic spirituality, and creativity, you should say if your group works against any of these concerns (for instance, if you discourage spiritual exploration or don’t accept certain types of people). Furthermore, you should never hide your intentions; if your main purpose is to sell something or recruit for a particular group, don’t make your guests sit through a long ritual to discover this. I’m not saying you can’t sell things or recruit. I’m not even saying you can’t do these things (within limits) at general pagan gatherings. But you should tell your audience if either of these is your chief aim.
Likewise, make sure you’re very clear as to the recipients of any donations you solicit - especially if any of the recipients aren’t needy pagan individuals or organizations.
Don’t forget your materials! And I’m not just telling you to bring your stang or your boline; you’ll also need some practical supplies. You should always have at least one first aid kit on hand. Sunscreen, all-natural insect repellent, and lots of water are a must for summer gatherings - just as extra blankets, gloves, coats, and protein-and-carb-rich foods are for winter ones. If you’re going very far from civilization, you’ll also want to bring a compass, a map, flashlights, and any other wilderness supplies that might be necessary. Remember: almost every mishap you can imagine then becomes a mishap you can prevent.
Please give thorough directions to the location of your assemblage, preferably with at least two different methods of navigation (for instance: It’s at 13 Pentagram Way, the house with the hazel trees just beyond the school). And make sure you give the correct date and time. It doesn’t matter how great your gathering is if no one can find it.
Likewise, let people know what you expect of them. Let them know if they should dress casually, formally or in ritual garb - and make certain you let them know if being skyclad is either expected or an option. Let them know if any part of the general area will be off-limits, whether you will serve refreshments, whether your event is eclectic or tradition-specific, and anything else you’d like to know if you were a guest instead of the host.
You should also inform your guests if there are firearms on the property where you’ll be holding your proceedings (or if people are allowed to bring firearms onto the premises and whether or not they - or any other weapons - might be concealed).
Make sure you understand the basics of ritual - both in terms of your own tradition and, if it differs, in terms of what most people in the pagan public will expect. If, for example, you follow a tradition in which sacred space is expressed as a complex polyhedron with points based on the chief deities of a little-known mythology, you might want to adopt a four-quartered, element-based circle casting for members of the general public. If you are celebrating a particular holiday, you should also understand the basics of how most of its adherents celebrate it. You have a greater chance of making most pagans want to come back if you don’t call earth at the south quarter or mix up an equinox with a solstice…
… but, should you happen to make a simple mistake like this (or any mistake at all), accept criticism gracefully. Blustering through a made-up excuse as to why you didn’t do the proper research or learn the pertinent details - rather than just offering a sincere apology and trying to do better next time - is not likely to make people want to attend future gatherings you host.
And, while we’re on the subject of criticism, decide on your stance toward debate - or even arguments, should they arise - before your meeting begins. Arguments should be immediately curtailed because they aren’t constructive. As for genuine debate, understand its time and place. You should be open-minded and willing to discuss your philosophies and proceedings, but not, for instance, in the middle of raising energy for the event’s main ritual. However, whenever you feel you must cut someone off, try to do so politely and with an invitation for a renewal of the discussion when circumstances allow.
Be respectful of your guests (especially if you don’t know all of them) by serving appropriate food. Unless you’re sure all of your guests eat meat or animal by-products, don’t serve them. You can create excellent, delicious vegan meals without offending anyone’s beliefs or participating in cruelty to wildlife. Moreover, you should look for foods that are safe for, at the least, people with fairly common allergies (or, if you can get feedback before the event, you can ask guests what allergies they might have). Make sure no food that’s for someone with an allergy contacts any surface - or even the general airspace - of a food that contains an allergen. You will also want to plan to eat after performing any ritual or meditation work, as most people are better able to trance on an empty or nearly-empty stomach. However, you may also want to keep a few snacks around for those rare weirdos (like Bahuvrihi) who actually meditate better after eating something.
Try to make sure your gathering is open to people with disabilities or other special conditions - or, at the least, let people know about potential problems. You should never, for instance, make someone who uses a wheelchair travel an hour only to discover that the ritual is being held in a muddy field. Ideally, everyone can participate; but, when that isn’t possible, they should at least know beforehand.
If you’re allowing people to bring their kids, specify what conduct you expect… but also keep the kids in mind when planning. If the gathering really isn’t for kids, get someone to look after them - or ask that they not attend; parents and other guardians will appreciate this, especially if there is any mature content to the gathering. If kids are going to participate, think of their points of view. Give them something kinetic and/or creative to do. Talk in ways they can understand. Smile, forgive mistakes (while turning actual mischief firmly but compassionately away), and make them feel welcome. Make sure they understand - in clear, direct, positive language - the conduct expected of them. And, for the gods’ sakes, don’t make them sit quietly and still for too long without something interesting to focus on. In fact…
Don’t let anyone sit still for too long - even during meditation or ritual. When someone’s in a meditative state, their brainwaves slow down. Thoughts don’t come as quickly, but they tend to be wiser, more potent, and more memorable. In many cases, five or ten minutes of “real-world” time spent in a trance seem more like twenty or thirty minutes. And twenty or thirty minutes of “real” time will probably leave most participants fidgeting and bored, no matter how lovely your imagery is.
Maybe there’s an emergency - or maybe someone just doesn’t understand ritual etiquette. Whatever the reason, someone will break the circle (or other sacred space). You can’t avoid it during most rites, so be ready for it. If your will and your circle are strong - and if they’re both flexible enough to allow people to move in and out of the ritual area - then you should have no worries during anything approaching typical circumstances.
You’re proud to be pagan! You’re open about your beliefs! You won’t be ashamed! That’s great… but you can only decide that for yourself, so don’t “out” anyone, please. If you don’t know that everyone in a public circle is open about being pagan, don’t invite passersby or non-pagans to join in or observe the proceedings. And, if you see someone from a gathering in a non-pagan venue, don’t say anything that might allow them to be identified unless you’re sure everyone around already knows or that that individual is completely open in all contexts. It’s easy to let it slip that you saw someone at a pagan event, but it’s impossible to take back such a slip. Let others decide how and when they will be known as pagans. There’s not a thing wrong with pagan pride, but, sadly, it isn’t always congruent with safety and tolerance for pagans.
And finally: Get help when you need it. It’s fine to host small gatherings on your own, but most events will require some assistance. Don’t be pushy, but don’t be afraid to look for people if you think you might need someone to monitor the circle energy, watch young ones, prepare food, write directions or see to any of the other myriad details of planning a pagan assemblage. Just don’t forget to balance their aid with something that supports them. Whether it’s with kind words, a meal or an opportunity to host their own gathering while you help out on some other occasion, your helpers need to know how much you appreciate them! So do your guests, so don’t forget to let them know how grateful you are for their presence and energies!