Longtime Conshohocken residents remember the annual “Feast” at the former SS. Cosmas and Damian Catholic Church. Over the years, thousands flocked to the borough for the solemn homage and street procession that honored the church’s patron saints and attended the colorful block party and food festival that took over its neighboring streets that weekend.
Italian or not, everyone was welcome, and the event’s pork sandwiches, fried dough and lively family reunions became the stuff of local legend before the parish closed its doors following a century of Feasts.
Organizers of Conshohocken’s debut Christmas Parrandera hope their Dec. 21 holiday celebration also becomes part of the town’s collective cultural fiber.
“The Parrandera is an old tradition from the islands,” says spokeswoman Jackie Rocco. “It basically started in the countryside among the poor, and it’s a very authentic folkloric tradition in every sense of the word. The people would walk from one house to another and create songs around their lives -- a way to preserve tradition that goes back to when the Spaniards conquered the natives in these lands. They start happening around Thanksgiving and go through the feast of the Three Kings. Through the years, it’s become a big thing beyond the villages in the countryside, and you can see it in the cities as well.”
Parrandera Conshohocken-style will begin at Second Avenue and Fayette Street at 6 p.m., and include Parranda musicians from Puerto Rico and Venezuela as well as any other musicians and spectators who care to join in or sing along the way. Rocco calls this the heart of the celebration. The revelers will head up Fayette Street to Sixth Avenue, where they will lend more subdued musical talents to another enduring and much-loved borough tradition: The Live Nativity on the front lawn of Conshohocken United Methodist Church.
Following a short caroling session at the tableau, CUMC members have invited everyone to join them inside for refreshments (among them, coquito, Puerto Rican eggnog made with coconut milk, cinnamon and eggs) and more music in the church’s Jillian’s Café coffee house.
CUMC has been staging its Live Nativity for decades, and over the years, countless local families have represented Christianity’s Holy Family and the shepherds and wisemen who traveled to the season’s iconic Bethlehem stable. The display once featured real animals but now uses mock-ups created by CUMC member and professional artist Drew Montemayor.
This year’s Live Nativity will open its stable doors Dec. 21 and welcome viewers from 7 to 9 p.m. through Dec. 23. Jillian’s Café will offer different musical programs, a miniature “Christmas Village,” a photo booth and children’s activities each night, including sets by the Clay Rock 7 trio and guitarist “Whitie” on Dec. 22 and the CUMC Praise Band on Dec. 23. Christmas Eve, the church’s congregants and Pastor Tim Duchesne will hold a 7 p.m. candlelight service.
Dec. 21’s combined Parrandera-Live Nativity is rooted in conversations between Rocco and CUMC member Patricia Patterson. Both women are active in a number of community organizations and met as fellow members of Conshohocken Plymouth Whitemarsh Rotary Club. The concept was new to Patterson, but Rocco, who is founder of the Conshohocken-based Hispanic Heritage Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania, recalls childhood Parranderas in Philadelphia’s St. Hugh’s Parish. Her mother and father, natives of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic respectively, brought their family to the United States when Rocco was a toddler. She, husband Domenic and their son have lived in Conshohocken for nearly 18 years, but her parents’ stories of Caribbean Parranderas coupled with Rocco’s own youthful experiences have stayed with her.
Her friend’s enthusiasm has been contagious, Patterson says.
“And I’m really looking forward to it,” the Plymouth Township woman continues. “It sounded wonderful when Jackie described it … very happy, very joyful. Hopefully, a lot of other people will agree.”
Rocco is crossing her fingers.
“Conshohocken is such a welcoming town, she says. “The borough is small and open to change because of all the different types of people who live here. We hope when people hear the music they’ll come out of their houses and join in … and bring their friends with them. It doesn’t matter if they don’t play (a musical instrument) -- they can bring a pot and spoon and keep time with the people who do. This is all about bringing people from different places together to share something and create something, and we’re hopeful that people will embrace this as they’ve embraced other (cultural traditions).”