Celebrating a tasty tradition in East Falls

No one knows when the annual Strawberry Festival actually began at the East Falls Presbyterian Church.

“I’m 63 and it’s older than me,” David McClenahan reasons, causing a ripple of other church members to announce their ages and wondering aloud if the tradition is older than them.

“I’m 67, and it’s older than me,” says one woman. “I’m 83, and I don’t know if it’s older than me,” ponders another. They both defer questions about their 155-year-old congregation to David McClenahan who members have informally named as “church historian.”

But he doesn’t know, and according to Pastor Katherine Rick-Miller, “If David didn’t know, I don’t think anyone does.”

The community may have forgotten when in the past century and a half the Strawberry Festival began, but they certainly remember the tastiest tradition.

Last week, 70 people arrived at the East Falls Presbyterian Church on Vaux St. for the Strawberry Festival and a “grand night of singing.”

As McClenahan explains, the night was once a community talent show, but now has become a performance given by the church’s band and choir.

The choir leader welcomed the audience with a promise of “a musical and gastronomical extravaganza.”

The four member Praise Band played several songs such as the Battle Hymn of the Republic, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, and the Marine Corp’s Hymn.

Dressed in full camouflage Mike Mandes called out from the audience as the Marines’ song was ending, “next year do the Air force!” A young band mate promised to play it next year, and Mandes replied, “good, I’ll be home by then.”

Since the holiday season ended three months ago, the choir has been relieved to rehearse non-Christmas music. McClenahan, who is also a member of the choir, says, “we have fun, the choir, because we actually get to sing the fun music.”

The twenty men and women performed 16 songs such as Uptown Girl by Billy Joel, as well as songs from the musicals Sweeney Todd, The Sound of Music, and Hairspray.

As the concert ended, the choir members quickly rushed backstage for their second performance: serving the audience some strawberry shortcake.

Only singers and children were allowed to serve, as is tradition. Marie Gibbs says that she “tried to help but they told me to go away.”

The choir had baked the shortcake, and served it with strawberries from Lancaster along with some traditional vanilla ice cream.

Marie Gibbs has been coming to the event for longer than she can remember.

Her first date with her husband took place at the Strawberry Festival 14 years ago. Knowing that the room would be filled with families and small children, Gibbs explains that she knew the event would be “a safe date.”

She still remembers the minister’s kids squirming in between her and her future husband, Steven, as they watched the concert, patiently waiting for strawberries.

She hasn’t missed a Strawberry Festival since then and says “we would never miss this. I mean this is where we met.”

And of course, Steven makes sure to tell her each year, through a mouthful of strawberries, that she looks exactly as pretty as she did on their first date.

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