The average church festival is more art than science. Still, science remains an ingredient. Some chemistry. Lots of biology. A bit of physics.
Yet, most discernible, from a scientific standpoint, are the economics.
These rites of summer passage rank among the world's most effective, micro economies. They are the hybrid offspring of charitable inclination, mercantilism, family orientation, technological advancements, community, culinary magic and games of chance.
Parish festivals are to economic systems what gypsy encampments are to residential housing. Here one moment, gone the next.
The transient nature and spiritual backdrop of this micro economic system makes for strange bedfellows.
Where else can good and bad habits amiably mingle like co-workers from different departments at the company Christmas party?
Every bit as American as baseball, hot rods and apple pie, church festivals enable us to congregate, gossip, volunteer, eat, drink, gamble, laugh, reminisce, squabble, win, lose, spend, consume and loiter. With God's seal of approval. Or, at least in the name of the refurbished pews and new blacktop parking lot the festival will help to finance.
Don't be fooled. While high finance may not immediately come to mind when observing the spectacle of the average parish festival, there are third world nations whose GDP will fall short of the revenue generated by the Summer Family Fun Fest at St. Peter in Chains.
These spiritual terrariums equate to wholly contained, semi-spiritual, mercantilist economies encompassing all of the attributes required to watch an artificial ecosystem at work.
Still, don't read too harshly into the artificial, transient nature of these three-day fundraising fun fests. They are as warm and friendly as the Midwest itself.
There is no better place on this earth to sneeze than in the midst of a parish festival. The entire place pauses, as six-hundred people turn in unison, simultaneously saying, "God Bless you." Talk about warm fuzzies.
Upon entering the parish festival, denizens rapid confront a myriad of observations.
"Why put an ATM machine at the entrance?"
"How many does it take to run a beer truck?"
"Was I wearing this golf shirt last year?"
"Uh, yea, Father... only because we've been travelling. But, I'll see you next Sunday."
"No, these dealers don't hit on thirteen."
Church festivals are reminiscent of a world in which everyone is a volunteer fireman. One minute, your drinking a beer with your insurance agent. The next, you slide down a pole and find yourself managing games of chance for a constituency of eleven-year olds.
"Hey, Bob, take it easy on Junior, will ya? He's pretty upset over that beating you delivered at the Wheel of Fortune."
Typically, the parish festival exerts a strange pull on many people. Perhaps it's the comforting illusion that all engagements at the festival are under the guise of the church.
For instance, parents who deny their children everything suddenly find themselves on festival Sunday treating junior like a trust-fund baby.
More money? Sure...
Sleep over? Why not...
You wanna do what? Just put the desks back in the classrooms afterward...
Maybe it's the strength in numbers principle. Get six Catholics together, and we can deny our children most anything. Get six-hundred of us together, and suddenly junior's pulling strings like a puppet master.
Upon arriving, your spouse soon asks the inevitable, "Honey, how much money do you have?" "$90 dollars," you proudly confirm. "I stopped at the cash machine on the way back from the dog park."
An hour later, you find yourself dropping one-syllable expletives as you agree to a five-dollar transaction fee at the festival's ATM. Slightly uncomfortable, as you wonder if the damn thing would fit in the back of your SUV.
In a community that prides itself on charity, sacrifice, self control and family values, the annual church festival enables parishioners to come by, but for one weekend, and stray from the flock (without leaving the flock), in the name of parish enhancement.
As a rule of thumb, most Midwestern men are good for one evening at the parish festival upon which their reputations will be established for the coming year.
"John, remember last year when you danced on that pole?"
Typically, it begins with a three-hour shift at the beer truck. While working, you break the international rule of distribution like a recidivist criminal. Consuming your own product.
Hey, a couple of beers while working the parish festival? What could go wrong?
Following your shift, you hug your fellow volunteers like some newly appointed labor leader, grab a handful of stray beer tickets, and meander into the crowd. Your mission? Find your wife. Or kids. Or an open seat at the blackjack table. Whichever appears first.
You stroll through the crowd like a politician standing for re-election. Shaking hands. Slapping backs. Hugging babies. Handing out beer tickets like a lobbyist does favors.
Leaving a vapor trail of goodwill and full bladders, you soon find yourself shouting across the barrier of the poker tent at three friends. Ney, three comrades - fellow refugees from the recent select soccer season. Men with whom you've gone to war. Early morning weekend games. Road trips to Toledo. Post-victory pizza parties. These are your soccer soul mates. Brothers-from-another-European-Football mother.
You next find yourself being dealt a hand of Blackjack. "Sit down you ol' rascal!"
Well, what's the harm in playing a couple hands, right?
Four hours later, you wonder where the sun went. Not to mention the cash in your wallet.
Questions slowly form in a mass of grey matter wrought lazy by a day's work at the festival.
"Did I eat dinner?"
"How am I getting home?"
"Why is my face painted?"
Shortly thereafter, your entorhinal cortex struggles to recall the evening's details. But the lateral orbitofrontal lobe continues to function like an amphetamine addict at a speed dating event. Slapping. Smiling. Shouting. Patting. Fist bumping. And high fiving. You're on a roll. The Teddy Kennedy of the festival electorate. A fixture for life.
That is, until a car suddenly appears before you. Wait a minute, isn't that...
"Get in!" Your wife shouts...
And like a diplomat, you are whisked away by your handlers. As the International Congress of Suds and Speculation grows smaller in the rear-view mirror.
You turn to face the two little boys in the back seat. They sit peacefully amidst the day's cache: nine 64-ounce bottles of orange Faygo.
Exhausted by the day's effort, eyes closing, their small heads rest against the five-foot inflatable Martian sitting between them.
"The aliens are bigger this year, daddy," the younger boy says wearily.
Soon you join them, sweetly drifting into the arms of Morpheus. Dreaming of ping pong balls and gold fish bowls.