Harrison Bailey III strides onto the field for the sheaf toss, an event that involves jabbing a hay bale with a pitchfork, then spinning like a discus thrower before heaving the load over a high pole. Bailey, an assistant principal at a nearby Lehigh Valley high school, stands six foot three and weighs 285 pounds. His head is shaved. He's wearing a skirt.
Make that a kilt—the costume of choice for many of the 250,000 attendees at the Celtic Classic Highland Games and Festival, my 12-year-old Jacob, and his pal Will included. For the fifth year, Jacob; my wife, Gina (who descends from the Scottish Douglas clan); and I (three-quarters Irish) have joined the fiddlers, step dancers, bikers tattooed with tribal shields, and spoon carvers making the pilgrimage to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for the oldest and largest Celtic gathering in North America. Bethlehem friends tipped us off to the fest, which takes over the fairgrounds of this picturesque town in late September to celebrate the music, dance, and crafts of the seven Celtic nations. And then some.
The fun begins Friday night with the piping of the haggis, when that delicacy (a sheep's stomach, or, in this instance, sausage casing, stuffed with sheep parts, oatmeal, and suet) is carried onto Highland Field in orange plastic buckets, accompanied by bagpipers. On Saturday morning there's a parade that goes through the town, which was settled by Moravians in 1741 and made famous by the now-defunct Bethlehem Steel Works. The marchers—the color guard of the local police department, the clan societies, Saint David's Welsh Society of the Slate Belt (the Welsh historically worked eastern Pennsylvania's mines), and the pipe-and-drum bands—make their way down Main Street and stream onto the fairgrounds. Then, under the tight control of their majors, the bands strike up a rousing tune and begin to march as one. When the first players reach the end of the field, they double back, weaving among their fellow musicians, creating a thrilling, whirring knot of tartans and swinging drumsticks.
Pageantry gives way to brute strength with the opening of the U.S. National Highland Athletic Championships. Top-ranking competitors from as far away as Scotland toss the caber (a tree trunk) and the Braemar Stone (a 24-pound rock). When Bailey, the U.S. champ and valley hero, sets another Celtic Classic record, spectators whoop and do an end-zone jig.
The festival stretches for a mile, the grounds dotted with beer tents and booths offering meat pies and Scotch eggs (hard-boiled egg inside sausage meat and bread crumbs). Bands of every style—from Dublin's jazz-inflected Lunasa to the Isle of Man's classical Ring Chiaullee, which features tin whistles and mandolins—perform on seven stages. Over at the Society for Creative Anachronism, maidens in homemade wimples spin wool, while adult warriors in battle wear crafted from football pads and plastic containers whack each other over the head.
Jacob and Will get in the swing of things, sparring with wooden swords bought from a vendor. Every year, Jacob trolls the market booths for something new for his festival rig. One year it was a tam-o'-shanter, another, a sgian dubh (pronounced "skin doo"), a small, holstered ankle knife. This time he chooses a sporran, a leather pouch worn at the waist. Around us swarm Goth teenagers with black capes and eyebrow piercings. Young Irish step dancers in bouncy curled wigs skip by. In the children's area, we watch a play in which a pirate recruits three dads in the audience as a ship's crew. They all good-naturedly take part in a salty hornpipe contest. As for me, I'm thinking what a bonus it is to be able to enjoy a pint of ale during the kids' activities! ✚
Christopher Russell is a New York artist who works in ceramics (see russellproject.com). He himself stitches his son's kilts for the fest.
This year's Celtic Classic Highland Games and Festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, takes place September 28, 29, and 30. See celticculturalalliance.org for more information, including schedules and lodging options.