My family has been a part of the Riverside Club for Adventure and Imagination from the very first days, when Tutorial was still in the planning stages and the activities were standalone programs like fencing, archery and building a cigar box ukulele.
My two older boys had the privilege of being in the inaugural Friday Tutorial–there were only three first-years and two tutors.
Looming on the calendar was the miscellaneous designation: Bilbo Baggins Birthday Party. We began to get emails requesting help clearing out a piece of the Severance family backyard–the one in Lombard, not Sugar Grove–for a forest walk. I’d hear snippets from my boys about who was Frodo…or Bilbo. But, I had no idea what was coming.
JJ and Conor came bounding out of Mayslake on what I remember being the day before the party mumbling something about costumes and food.
“We need to dress like Hobbits tomorrow and you need to bring something that only Hobbits would eat.”
The missive that came from Tutorial offered not a whole lot of information. The only thing I can remember is that Hobbits don’t eat tomatoes or most green things.
My first reaction was, “No way! That’s crazy. Can’t be done that quickly.” I’m sure I grumbled some other not-niceties while I was at it.
But, then I calmed down and realized that for little boys all that dressing like a Hobbit meant was rolling up some khaki pants and the sleeves of a white shirt. A vest would be nice, but not necessary if one could not easily be gotten.
As for the food, I was overthinking. Meat….chicken legs…done. Did my husband or I dress up? No. We were not yet ready to embrace our inner elves.We went not sure what to expect. What we got was the shire in all its glory. The lanterns. The food. The music. The spooky stories in the forest. Joy. Laughter. Friendship.
Fast forward ten plus years. This past Saturday night at the end of the evening, my son who was one of the three little boys in that first Friday Mayslake Tutorial and is now a senior in high school, said to me with much sadness: “I can’t believe this is likely my last Bilbo Baggins Birthday party if I go away to college.”
For him, this annual festival has been solidified as a core memory; it has given him the chance to witness the fruits of a fellowship of creative endeavor striving to bring into this life an evening of the extraordinary. My youngest son, on the other hand, just experienced his first Bilbo Baggins Birthday party as an actual apprentice, and has the anticipation and excitement of so many more to come.
But why? Why does this festival have such an effect? Many over the years have questioned its efficacy and worth, weighed against the often monumental effort to bring it to life. While I have long disagreed with these sentiments, I cannot say that I have been able to verbalize why Bilbo Baggins is such an important and integral part of the Riverside year and educational vision.
That is, until reading and editing Peter Searby’s new book, Casting Fire:
There are moments in life when we are able to share memories that make an impression on
our hearts, minds, and imaginations. The greater the commemoration–when it is beautiful
and meaningful–the greater the impression on our life.
Memory is one of the most powerful life gifts we possess as humans; shared memory is thus
one of the most powerful ways for us to experience life together.
We are actually part of an epic story in which we all play vital roles. Yet because of the
ordinariness of our days, we easily forget the epic and become blind to the grand reality of
the great narrative that surrounds us.
Festivals help us step outside the bounds of ordinary time to experience something that inspires us. These events help us to see the extraordinary story we are living in, so that when we wake up the next day, we have a memory of meaning so powerful that it is life giving, and helps us continue the journey of life with hope and strength.
Folks who have attended the Bilbo festivals have said there was something enchanting about them–as though they had walked out of our world for a moment and experienced that ancient communio we all long for in life.
The mixture of music, dancing, delicious food, and good conversation lightens our hearts. The theatrical performances under moonlit trees inspire our imaginations; the lantern lit walks where scenes from The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit appear in the dark remind us of the dangers in life. But, above all, friendship and a prayerful spirit root the celebration in the great reality of our shared experience in the one Story that saves.
That, my friends, is why I finally purchased an outfit that could be considered Hobbitish. That is why so many adults and teenagers put countless hours into transforming the ordinary into the Shire. That is why the Tutorial boys and now Studio girls pour themselves into practicing their performances and becoming orcs, elves, and Bilbo himself.
And that is why for us Riversiders, September wouldn’t be September, and Fall couldn’t possibly begin, without celebrating the eleventy-first birthday of the most revered Hobbit Bilbo Baggins.