The best parish fêtes offer something to delight all five of our senses. The worst are marred by nasty niffs

For a very un-English word, “fête” has become something quintessentially English. Fêtes are often one of the few occasions where a community gathers for the sake of gathering. In recent summers, we have been buntinged out with large groups seen right across the country. We witnessed those street parties celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, while during the London Olympics neighbours really started seeing each other as neighbours.

Originating with the medieval carnivales, the British fête has always had an association with religious expression that is lived out in the community. It is only right, then, that our parishes have some share in this history. With the renewed sense of community living we have much to witness to in our
society.

The annual summer fête this year is an opportunity to highlight the profile of your parish, as well as raising much-needed funds. People who would not have stepped foot in a parish event may now be tempted at the sight of that luminous banner hanging across the parish lawn.

What might people expect at the typical parish fête? Here is a five-sense guide to the typical parish summer event…

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Smell: Be it the ever-popular burgers and sausages on the barbecue or recently cut lawn, smell is an important factor in the experience of a summer fête. Smell can either attract or revolt a potential summer “fêter” so a little thought given to the smell of the event can go a long way.

I remember being at a summer event that was a turn-off for many because of a combination of damp carpet in a marquee and a strange smelling fertiliser product. The two made for an interesting whiff that soon emptied the bar area.

Sight: A trail of bunting in blue, red and white, or perhaps the papal colours, will attract eyes to your fête. Flags give you that essential visibility, making people know that you are there and that something is happening. If the flags are still there after six months, looking tattered, they can leave an undesired effect.

Walking round a fête that is well-organised also makes a big difference. If people can see that thought has been given to the laying of tables and organisation of stalls, with central focus given to food stalls, the flow of people can be better managed and it speaks volumes of the general run of the parish too.

Allow people to have a look inside the church during the day. A small team could be on hand to offer short tours of the church to explain key features. Think of this as the Catholic version of MTV Cribs.

Sound: From a distance glaring disco music can be heard, which sparks the attention of passers-by. Either the liturgical music has changed or there is a fête on. The general chatter of people is interrupted by the caller’s announcements. Details of the afternoon’s events are announced and Father picks the raffle winners. You hear the sound of a minor scramble as the cake stall is declared open. There is also the sound of the crowd assembled: everything from teething toddlers to the tapping of Irish dancers. A sound to avoid is that annoying playback on megaphones that plagues the ears.

Sound clearly has an evangelising potential, too. Perhaps there could be a moment in the day when a reading from Scripture is shared on the microphone or a thought for the day is given. Why not ask some members of the parish community to share their testimony?

Taste: A typical summer fête is marked by the taste of a chilled glass of beer and wine, which complement Mrs Smith’s fairy cakes and her marvellous Victoria sponge. Tea always tastes better in a cup rather than a plastic beaker, but plastic cups are a godsend when the washing is piled high during that mid-afternoon rush.

For all their history, the summer fête has adapted to modern tastes as international dishes complement the usual barbecue and local butchers and grocers are supported. You can perhaps “go green” by promoting the use of recycling facilities or organic local produce.

Touch: A typical summer fête brings to mind many memories relating to touch. For example, a good summer fête involves much activity be it holding mini-golf clubs or that make-shift broom helping you to “hook-a-duck”. Perhaps you will be throwing a wet sponge at your old school teacher, wrestling to balance the varied sized bottles of liquid that you have won in the raffle or simply thumbing your way through a pile of books that you probably donated anyway.

All these sensory experiences (and many more) are part of an event that can help shape a parish community and show the parish to be acting in the wider community. Pope Francis shares this vision of a missionary parish in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, calling for a parish to be “a community of communities”. The summer fête enables a parish to live out a vision of community living within a wider setting. The parish community feeds and simply spends time with others. A fête allows people to see the Church as more than a building. As a community event, a fête enables others to go beyond the outward impression they may have of the Church and enter into a sense of communion.

Ryan Service is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Birmingham

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (23/5/14)

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