Brightening Winter's Longest Night
By Cathleen Ann Steg
A Venturing crew steps back into medieval times to celebrate Dec. 21 with a gala annual family feast.
It is midday, Dec. 16, 2000, but no sunlight reaches through the tangled woods of northern Virginia's Prince William Forest Park. Constant drizzle keeps things damp and dark; a doe and her fawn graze at forest-edge, water droplets beading up on their backs. You might almost call it dreary.
However, the atmosphere couldn't be better for the young men and women in Venturing Crew 1433, from Manassas, Va., in the Bull Run District of the National Capital Area Council. Medieval/Renaissance re-enactors, these Venturers came to the forest for the crew's third annual Winter Solstice Family Feast, a festive banquet to celebrate the return of light after the longest night of the year (Dec. 21).
Welcome to the year 1200
"For us, it's actually the year 1200," explains Timmy Zacherl, a founder of Crew 1433 and a recent graduate of George Mason University. "Look around, and see how we've gone back in time."
Zacherl, chief executive officer of Avalon, a role-playing gaming group that serves as the crew's chartered organization, points to the spectacle emerging from the mist in a nearby clearing: More than 50 Venturers and adults fill the rainy groves and meadows of this national park, costumed in everything from the chain mail and purple tunic of a royal guard, to the long gowns of a courtly lady, to the special silvery hues of a unicorncomplete with glued-on horn.
Founded in 1997 by Timmy and his brother Jeremy Zacherl (both are Eagle Scouts), Venturing Crew 1433 now has nearly 100 members. At monthly camp-outs, they put their medieval knowledge to use in a lively role-playing game, during which a Venturer can be a character in the gamesuch as cook's assistant, guard, or even an ambassador from another landor a game marshal (staff member).
The marshals develop the ongoing story line, incorporating the "histories" supplied by each player-character. Members dress and act "in character" for the entire weekend, performing, in effect, a marathon theater improvisation.
Focus on values and ethics
A role-playing game allows participants to think about values. A crew weekend resembles an extended version of a role-playing skit from the BSA's highly acclaimed "Ethics in Action" program, used to help youth focus on concepts of right and wrong, and the best ways to get along with other people.
"It's like acting in a play," says Izzy Gaston, a home-schooled high school junior from nearby Woodbridge. Participants know the basic plot for the weekend, but "you have no clue how it's going to turn out, so there's lots of excitement and you really have to keep thinking."
There are surprises for the marshals as well. "We set up the plot, but we're never quite sure how the players will react to it," says crew Advisor Georgina Rogers.
For example, "the staff can send out a character who has possession of a scroll filled with important information that is meant to move the story along," notes Rhys Franck, a youth member and sophomore at Northern Virginia Community College. "But if the players just let him walk past [and don't get the information], all that clever stuff on the scroll is useless."
Bedeck the halls
This third annual Winter Solstice Family Feast will feature fun, food, and entertainment, says crew committee chairman Joe Cordes.
"This is our big eventparents and siblings are invited to come, eat with the crew, and even wear costumes if they like." Cordes, professor of economics and international affairs at George Washington University in nearby Washington, D.C., is attired in a wizard's robe covered with moons and stars.
Crew members have bedecked their inn (the dining lodge at their cabin campsite) like a true medieval hall. The roaring fire, dark wood beams and columns entwined with pine boughs and red ribbons, colorful banners, and black iron candelabra filled with flickering red candlesall bring guests into a world familiar to England's King Richard the Lionheart and Robin Hood and his merry men.
And the food! Under the supervision of Georgina Rogers, the festive spread includes succulent roast turkey, squash, beans, rice, casseroles to suit all tastes, and hot cornbread fresh from the ovens in the inn's kitchen.
During the meal, a young man provides music on a Celtic-style drum; a person portraying a gypsy entertains with balance-beam gymnastics on a rough-hewn bench, culminating in a handspring onto the floor; a small group offers a version of Paul Simon's "Scarborough Fair."
A poetry contest is the evening's highlight. Crew members recite verses they have composed, based on medieval themes. The audience shows its appreciation with wild, raucous applause, shouting for their favorite poets as if they were champion knights at a jousting tournament.
The appeal of the unique
Why do these young adults make such a time commitment, working between monthly camp-outs to make their own costumes and equipment, develop story lines, and even rehearse for these public recitations?
For crew Webmaster Alexis Buckles, a freshman theater and communications major at Virginia's Radford University, it's the uniqueness of the program. "There's nothing even close to this at college," she says, attired in the costume of an apprentice-level (tiny horn) unicorn.
Advisor Rogers thinks the crew appeals to so many young people "because they enjoy the opportunity to try being different kinds of people, in a very safe environment."
A Venturing event is one of the few places, she adds, where "kids are so accepting of each others' differences." In costumes, some differences are exaggerated, Rogers acknowledges, but the lessons learned while playing these roles tend to carry over into daily lives.
"It's just a lot of fun," adds Paul Masterson, a student of drama and political science at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. "If you like strategy games, you have to love this. Here, we have to actually use our own strategies, on the spot." Crew members, in effect, are the game pieces in this live-action game.
Best of all, "You never know who you'll meet during the game," says Paul Masterson, who hasn't missed a crew event in three years. Game marshals might send out "the most ferocious-looking creatures, with horns and great masks, and you're thinking, 'Oh, my gosh, big danger here!'" he adds.
"Then they come up and say, 'Hey! You want a cookie?' You never know what's going to happen, what the other person is really like. So you have to be polite all the time. Hmm ... I guess it's kind of like life."
Which is a pretty bright thought for the darkest day of the year.
Contributing editor Cathleen Ann Steg lives in Fairfax, Va. She also wrote the article on the Annapolis merit badge jamboree in this issue.
November-December 2001 Table of Contents
Copyright © 2001 by the Boy Scouts of America. All rights thereunder reserved; anything appearing in Scouting magazine or on its Web site may not be reprinted either wholly or in part without written permission. Because of freedom given authors, opinions may not reflect official concurrence.