A couple of years ago, the city of Toronto adopted the nickname “The Six.” Not officially, of course. It’s a nickname. Nicknames are unofficial things.
Lots of people speculate about its origin and meaning. Some say “The Six” represents the convergence of two area codes (416 and 647). Others claim it’s about the six boroughs that banded together into the Toronto megacity in 1998.
I have a different explanation.
That’s right – to me, The 6ix has a Mennonite connection.
This is because, unlike other theorists, I know about the secret but relentless Mennonite cabal that has operated in Toronto for years to quietly influence the culture, and slowly move our city toward a Mennonite rebrand featuring the most Mennonite of Mennonite numbers – 606.
With “The Six” being firmly entrenched now in the city’s identity, we’re one third of the way there.
Some of my readers might be incredulous of this story. Drake, they will say, who truly popularized the nickname, is not a Mennonite. This is true. I don’t claim that Drake has any connection whatsoever to any of the various Mennonite groups in Ontario or elsewhere. You’d also be hard pressed to find Mennonite themes in Drake’s song lyrics. And, though he mentions a lot of Toronto locations, none of them are particularly Mennonite sites.
Nor am I aware of a large Mennonite Drake following. To be honest, many of us didn’t even watch him in that worldly TV show, Degrassi, back when he was just a fresh-faced kid. Because it’s just too sad watching teenagers who don’t get to spend all their free time at Church-sponsored youth events.
But even Drake admits that he didn’t come up with the nickname; he just popularized it. And I can’t explain why he has done that without recognition of the Mennonite angle. It doesn’t matter. We didn’t do it for the recognition.
Others of my skeptical readers might not believe that there could be a group of Mennonites pulling the strings of cultural power far behind the scenes because no group of Mennonites could remain unified for long enough to accomplish this monumental feat.
Yeah, well. Of course there were divisions and disputes along the way.
I’d like to say that Mennonites are united in our love of 606. Like it’s the one thing that draws us all together. And a lot of Mennonites do have a strong affinity for the number. A while back, a certain Mennonite Church in Waterloo was vandalized by some wit painting the number 666 on the exterior wall. The enterprising pastor simply took up his own paint bucket and changed the central 6 to a 0, to the wild amusement of this pastor’s Mennonite facebook followers. That’s how we love 606. (We apparently love cleanliness more as it was removed very shortly thereafter). We might even love it more than that little dove logo – it’s becoming a pretty well-established part of our brand.
But poor 606 also has its detractors. And it has had them for pretty much as long as it’s had its fans.
At one point in our history – way back in 1969 – 606 was nothing more than the number assigned to a choral song in a new hymn book. Neither the music nor the lyrics have Mennonite roots but the hymn took off in our congregations faster than you can say Schwartzentruber-Warkentein and became a favorite. Why it became a fast favorite is a matter of speculation but I think it’s because 606 is a song that’s fun to sing if you’re a fan of singing songs in four-part harmony. The voices interweave as if each are of equal importance and there’s a hint of the sort of pomp and splendour that we usually weed out of our worship experiences.
Singing 606 is one of the very few pleasurable activities that the Mennonite Church actively encouraged, and we ran with it. Nothing defines Mennonite “fun” quite like 606.
We enjoy singing 606.
We enjoy listening to ourselves sing 606.
We even enjoy watching strangers being confused at our propensity to suddenly start singing 606.
But we’re not a denomination all that comfortable with pleasure, so you can bet there’s been push back.
I have little doubt that the first people to grumble about our love of 606 did so in objection to the obvious pleasure and, yes, pride that we take in singing the extended Doxology. I know a middle aged woman who completely lost her enjoyment of the song after her time at Conrad Grebel College when a professor there accused Menno congregations of pridefulness in their singing. Instead of swelling with pleasure every time she hears the opening notes, she now spends the 1.41 minutes of singing time looking about the congregation and judging those who appear to be taking pride in their singing. Which can be its own kind of pleasure, I suppose.
The biggest crisis to hit 606 came in 1987 when a new hymnal committee – and the Mennonite world more broadly – was split over whether to change the word “Him” to the word “God” throughout the text. In favour were those who preferred a less gender restrictive image of God. In opposition were those who thought enough was enough. No one minded the quiet omission of the most patriarchal of hymns from the new collection or a little bit of tinkering with the lyrics of the minor hymns in our collection. But messing with 606 was, simply put, political correctness run amok.
In the end, the committee included the hymn with the original words and placed the alternate lyrics in small print at the bottom of the page. In practice, now, the song is mostly sung with the masculinist lyrics though sometimes some of the women in a congregation will sing the inclusive lyrics. Because of the interplay of voices, this results in the upper registers singing “Praise God…” and the lower registers forcefully entering the song next with “Praise Him” as if in assertion of God’s masculinity.
That’s what happens when you compromise.
Though it conceded on gender neutrality, that committee did strike a blow at 606 which hit hard. In the (blue) 1990 hymnal, the committee placed the song in the middle of the book and gave it a new number. It was as if the committee thought it could unseat 606 from its place of glory simply by renumbering it 118.
It’s been 27 years since that last hymnal but we’ve been pretty steadfast in our commitment to the number 606. I don’t know of anyone who has gone so far as to deface the hymnbook to strike out the offending 118 numbers and replace them with 606 but that doesn’t mean we’ve all just given up. Instead, we have learned a certain bilingualism – including the number 118 in the bulletin and knowing to call it 606 among ourselves. If anything, the number is even more meaningful to us now than it was when there was a commonsensical page reference to accompany it. The number has recently been the subject of an art project, a Mennonite-ish political blog, and a fundraising campaign.
Not that the attacks have stopped.
Oh, no. The most recent attack came as recently as this past November when a graduate student in musicology opined online that 606 was the child of Mennonationalism. Given our passion for the separation of Church and state, we’re a little sensitive about accusations of nationalism and I know for a fact that this critique shook some of the Toronto Mennonite cabal to their core, especially coming so soon after we had one-third succeeded in Project Rename Toronto #The6ix-oh-6ix.
I think what hurt the most was the suggestion that 606 might be a tool of exclusion – that people untrained in singing 4-part harmony chorales might find our love of the song off-putting. This notion is completely inconceivable to the True Believers among us who quite reasonably believe that strangers hearing us singing 606 would feel the spirit of God and immediately wish that they too could learn to sing such an anthem.
And in the spirit of inclusivity, we welcome everyone to learn. It’s not that hard, really. Those who don’t know how to read music can just open their mouths and let their voices be carried by the tumult around them. Asking for any more accommodation than that is just, well, political correctness run amok.
With a new hymnal in the works, many of us are hoping that we have atoned enough for our past misbehaviour and that the committee will relent and place 606 back at the end of the hymn book where it belongs. Until then, we will persevere in our efforts to keep the number alive in the world. Because it’s not just Toronto. The intrepid Mennonites of Chicago worked quietly behind the scenes for years to get an elevated park named The 606 (officially, it’s named after the zip code but Mennos know better). Likewise, the Mennonites of eastern Kentucky have already secured the name The 606 for their region (again, officially it’s about the area code). I’m not sure if we’re behind the British sports radio program of the same name, the shelving units, or the countless 606 bus routes around the world.
But we might be.
Six-oh-six is that important to us.
People who have requested a 606 cocktail have generally wanted something that reflected the big sound and the rich harmonies of the beloved hymn. This cocktail is based on The Toronto cocktail, as is appropriate, and I like to think the flavours do layer. To avoid greater divisiveness, I will refrain from saying which of the four parts is the bitter fernet branca.
2 oz Canadian rye whiskey
1/4 oz fernet branca
1/4 oz maple syrup
dash orange bitters
Stir in a mixing glass with ice until chilled. Strain into a coupe glass and garnish with a twist of orange peel or a maraschino cherry.