About two years into the Arizona Highland Celtic Festival organization and planning, an idea came to the board that it include an “oatmeal toss” event for the kids. That is, the famed breakfast food would be thrown for sport.
“And I asked, ‘did you say oatmeal?,’” founding member Jude McKenzie recalled. At the time the festival took place in Wheeler Park. “I thought the city would not like that, but she said we could put a tarp down … And that event became such a major hit and a major success and that continues to this day.”
The Arizona Highland Celtic Festival, oatmeal, cabers, kilts and all, will celebrate its 20th year of tradition and fun with its annual event in Flagstaff’s Foxglenn Park. Sponsored by the Northern Arizona Celtic Heritage Society, the major part of the fest takes place on Saturday, July 15 and Sunday, July 16 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and comes after a week of events. Ticket prices vary. Learn more at www.nachs.info.
With this year marking two decade of Celt celebrations, McKenzie was reminiscing about how much the festival has grown and evolved since its first incarnation in 1997, which came a year after the founding of the Society, known by its acronym NACHS.
“Somehow, a small group of people sort of found each other in town, and we all had been going highland games or festivals,” she remembered of the beginnings. “And we thought it would be so cool to do something in flagstaff.”
She added, “For our first year, we had one entertainment tent that was 20 feet by 40 feet, and that included the stage, the seating and the bar at the back. Now, we have two 40-by-100 tents for the stages and audience. Another thing, in terms of how much we’ve grown, is for our first year we had five clans and societies, this year, we have 35 clans and societies.”
To honor the big anniversary, NACHS has stepped up its teachings at this year’s event. McKenzie explained that bringing some educational aspects of the Celtic culture and people of the Highlands region has been a big goal with the Society.
“Something that we are very proud of is our educational component,” she said. “We’ll have two educational tents, to help people learn about the Celtic regions. Most people don’t know that we count eight Celtic regions, two are in Spain, and we recognize them and we celebrate them all.”
She continued, “We also have workshops on poetry, music and a dance workshop. We’ll have a dance called ‘Strip the Willow,’ — and don’t worry, there aren’t any strippers involved. It’s actually a really fun Scottish country dance. James Jay does poetry for us, and he’s amazing … We’re lucky because we have these most excellent people who are drawn to this thing.”
One beautiful element that has accompanied the Celtic Festival each year is the rain. While many summer festivals have migrated to June or others to September to avoid the lightning and the downpours of the Arizona Monsoon, Flagstaff’s Highland festival has embraced it.
“We don’t think of the Monsoon as a challenge,” McKenzie said. “We call that good Celtic weather. It’s funny because we’re good friends with producers of other Celtic events, in particular the San Diego Scottish Highlands Games. And one of their organizers, Bob McClintock, said to me that if one drop of rain came, they’d all go running. But in Flagstaff, we have big rains, people huddle under tents, and then the rain stops and they go back out.”
The Celtic Highland Festival actually begins as a week of events that includes a piping and drumming school that’s convened, concerts that take place Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and a Wednesday night free concert in the park at Bushmaster at 5:30 p.m. and a bagpiping performance in Heritage Square at 6 p.m.
It’s all part of a festival that has grown year over year and drawn people who love all things Celtic from across the region and beyond.
“You work so hard all year long to make this all come together and make it work,” McKenzie said. “Really, we’re all a kooky bunch. I like to say nothing’s kookier than a bunch of Celts. And we celebrate our kookiness.”