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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

The Paniyiria:
Greek Festivals

 

By Panayiota Bakis Mohieddin

 

Table of Contents

 

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Introduction

A paniyiria (πανηγύρι) is a festival event that is usually, but not always, sponsored by a Greek Orthodox church. Other spellings of this word you may see are panigyri or panagyri. The plural form is paniyiria.

Our churches are given holy names inspired by saints, and each saint has his own name day. Therefore, each church has its own annual celebration corresponding to its saint's name day, and these celebrations are called paniyiria (πανηγύρια).

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo shows Hagia Sophia (Saint Sophia), the Greek Orthodox church in Thessaloníki, Greece. Photo by By Andrew Zorin, CC BY-SA 3.0. This church is one of several locations in Thessaloníki included on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

About Name Days

For Greek Orthodox people, children's name days are considered more important and more sacred than their own birthdays! For those who are not named after a saint; for example, those who have an ancient Greek name, there is a special day designated for them which is known as the celebration of Ayion Panton (Αγίων Πάντων)

I am named after Panayia (Παναγία). My name "Panayiota" comes from "Panayia" which is the Greek name for the Virgin Mary, similar to Miriam or Maryam in Hebrew and Arabic. The male counterpart to my name is Panayioti (Παναγιώτη). Other names honored on my name day include Despina (Δέσποινα), Maria (Μαρία), Marios (Μάριος), and Simela (Σιμέλα), to name a few. Our name day, August 15th, is considered to be among the biggest holidays for us and many Greeks.

In Greece, many people leave the major cities to enjoy the holiday month of August. Most people go to their home town villages to celebrate the feast along with a mini or massive family reunion! Unlike Western traditions, on a person's given celebratory day (either birthday or name day or anniversary) the person celebrating is the one who treats their friends and family to dessert, a meal, coffee or drinks. In Greece, it is rare to take someone out to treat them. Instead, it would be considered rude if you are the one celebrating and you don't provide the treats to your friends and family!

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo was taken in August 2019 at a summer Pontian paniyiri in Athens, Greece. It wasn't associated with a church, but rather with a cultural organization. To my left, which is not shown, one would see vendors with tables and souvlakia being cooked and sold. This dance party continues until 6:00-7:00 in the morning! Musicians often rotate with each other throughout the celebration to allow time for breaks.

 

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The Paniyiria in Greece

Paniyiria have been around since ancient times. Historically, people in rural areas lacked means of transportation to visit far away villages, so the paniyiri was the event everyone looked forward to entertainment and celebrations. Looking for a bride or groom? Back then and today many would go to meet people. I grew up going with my family to almost every paniyiri and annual Greek dance.

Traditionally in Greece, paniyiria take place outside of major cities known as eparhia (επαρχία); simply put, anywhere there is an active Greek Orthodox church, expect to see some sort of paniyiri. Some are more massive than others!

Today, the major cities are filled now with villagers who bring their traditions with them. Interestingly, everyone in Greece claims to be from the major cities they now live in, because they are embarrassed to say they are from some faraway villages! When I ask people, "Where you from?" and they say "Athens," I ask them, "Really? You are Athenian Athenian? Ok, where are your parents from?" — then the truth comes out!The major religious paniyiria in Greece are very colorful, filled with many traditional activities and customs that are celebrated both day and night. There's more to these festivals than just eating food and dancing in the streets. People prepare for it, sometimes starting the day before.

No paniyiri is a paniyiri without music, dance and food. They can last until 5:00 or even 7:00 in the morning!

There are dozens and sometimes even hundreds of street vendors at the paniyiria in Greece, selling anything and everything. Sometimes there will be a band with music for dancing, sometimes not. People at a paniyiri will usually light a candle, though non-believers simply show up to take a shopping stroll and hang out with friends. It's a fun experience.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This beautiful Greek Orthodox church is the Cathedral of Saint Andrew the Apostle in Patras, Greece. Construction started on it in 1908, and it was inaugurated in 1974. Photo by Peloponnisios, own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

At some places in Greece, these gatherings can be massive, and others can be small. Not all are connected to a church's celebration. A paniyiri can be an annual celebration hosted by specific regional folk dance and social clubs, or not. For the untrained ear, the music played at these events can seem to have a Balkan music acoustic flair, but we don't call it that.

The event can include dancers and musicians dressed in traditional regional attire celebrating in the street with historic traditions of bygone days.

In the Greek folkloric arts world, there are many traditionalists who believe that each region should only stick to its own regional music. They heavily frown upon including too much diverse music. They feel it has destroyed the paniyiria gatherings, especially when they play laiko music or when they play traditional music in a slightly Oriental flavor to accommodate the women enjoy dancing tsifteteli. Even in Pontian gatherings in Greece, some organizers would never include a laiko band. Of course, in the North American diaspora this is impossible to avoid since many Greeks are married to others of various regions, and it's necessary to cater to all.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: A folk dance company from Silogos Pontion Axehastes Patrides (Ο Συλλογος Ποντιων Αξεχαστες Πατριδες) in traditional costume performs at a paniyiri.

Buying Kouboskinia at Vending Tables

Every monastery has a gift shop, and they also set up vending tables at paniyiria. One of the items people can buy from them are bracelets similar to the ones in this photo, which are called koboskinia (κομποσκοίνια). The singular is koboskini (κομποσκοίνι). The koboskini is the Greek counterpart to Catholic rosary beads. It's thin, made with tiny knots and finished off with a cross.

The term koboskini can also refer to a necklace version, which our monks use with prayer. This necklace version is usually associated with monasteries, and isn't something most lay people would wear — although some do.

Years ago, I wore a koboskini that wasn't particularly good quality. After I showered, the color would bleed out and stain my sheets. My relatives would freak out because we didn't know where this stain came from. Could it be some insect? A year later we discovered it was from the koboskini!

Koboskinia used to be thick and bulky, and would stretch out. Over the years, our monasteries improved on the quality and craft of making them.

Many Greek Orthodox followers, even if they don't set foot in our churches, always wear koboskinia as a custom. Both men and women wear them. We either purchase them when we visit a monastery or attend a paniyiri, or we receive them as gifts from someone who did. Many people even wear more than ten of them on their wrist at a time, each one from a different monastery!

When I do a dance performance for non-Greeks, I'm sometimes asked why I'm wearing a hair tie on my wrist with my costume. I explain that it's not a hair tie, and that typically we never take this off.

In the U.S., people are expected to remove all items before surgery and other medical procedures. In contrast, in Greece, we are not required to remove these even for such medical situations.

Many younger Greeks prefer to wear koboskinia instead of wearing crosses around their necks.

One of my koboskinia was purchased at Soumela monastery in northern Greece. There, many vendors have set up their tables outdoors in front of the church entrance, selling many religious and cultural items.

 

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The Paniyiria in the Diaspora

Many people believe paniyiria are only in Greece. That's not accurate. All the Greek immigrants in the diaspora built Greek Orthodox churches everywhere they settled, and the paniyiria followed as a way of continuing to celebrate Greek culture in their new homeland. In the United States, Greeks name each paniyiri with the name of a saint.

The church experience inside of Greece is very, very different from that in the diaspora. In the diaspora, many of us grew up within the community of our local Greek Orthodox church, participating in church-sponsored youth organizations such as J.O.Y. and G.O.Y.A., Greek school and/or dance, and sports teams. We also had our own paniyiria experiences through our local churches.

There are many Greek moms behind the scenes of the paniyiria — in the kitchen and also in the politics of it all!

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo was taken August 15, 2019 at a mountain paniyiri, in the Pontian Anatolian Greek village of Babalio, Aitoloakarnanias (Μπαμπαλιό, Αιτωλοακαρνανίας). This large annual gathering is run by my cousin, Fanis Kondohristos (Φάνης Κοντοχρήστος). Here, I'm sitting with my aunt, Thia Saia, after performing in a show. In the background under the high mountainous edge, you see a beautiful memorial that was built in honor of the loss of Pontian lives. To the left, you see smoke. No paniyiri is complete without souvlakia on a stick, typically pork. These gatherings can last up until 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning!

Seeding Greek Culture in the United States

Our Greek Orthodox churches were not only built to use for prayer and religion, but also to keep the community together. Many young women in Greece were carefully selected to move to the diaspora, to serve the church, and run these activities for children of the first generation and beyond. Almost every year, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of the United States issued special scholarships to about 12-15 female students from Greece who showed the highest grades and excelled in the arts as well.

These women were sent to an all-girls college in New York named St. Basil's Teaching Academy where they majored in education. They also studied dance, theater, choir, etc. My mother, Evangelia Symeonidou-Bakis, was one of the young women selected for this scholarship, and she graduated from St. Basil's. The teaching academy decided to merge with the renowned all men's college in Brookline, Massachusetts, which was called Hellenic College Holy Cross. This was the seminary men attended to become Priests. My mother was a member of the first graduating coed class! For many years, many students who came from Greece taught part-time in the evenings at various Greek church schools. Today sadly, with immigration not as it was in the 1960s-1990s we don't see as many native speakers teaching in Greek schools.

A book is being written about the crucial role these women have played in developing the Greek cultural experience, including paniyiria, for the new immigrants in North America and beyond.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: My beautiful mother, Evangelia Symeonidou-Bakis, models the Greek national costume which is known as an Amalia. She is a very talented folk singer and folk dancer who left from her village at the tender age of 17, leaving behind her mother and brother. I mentioned her below in the section titled "Seeding Greek Culture in the United States".

The Immigrant Community

To understand the paniyiria in the diaspora, you have to understand how it all started.

The experience was a bit different back then. In the 1980's, 1990's, up until early 2000's, we still had large numbers of immigrants and first-generation Greek Americans. Since the early 2000's, there have not been as many. Almost all the families were recent immigrants, and the children, such as me, first generation. There were many more things going on, and more Greek nightclubs. Even the paniyiria back then weren't very open to non-Greeks, especially the winter ones that were held indoors.

Music

Music is held outdoors. Usually the musicians play from underneath a tent to protect them from sudden rain. The outdoor setup is typically held in the church's massive parking lot. Sometimes there are even mini marathon races. I remember I came in 2nd place in elementary school. Of course, there are raffles and dance performances by the local youth dance groups from the Greek school.

Attendees were mostly our families, and they were advertised among the Greek community. (Remember, back then we didn't have Internet or social media.)

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Panayiota Bakis Mohieddin poses with a kemence player. Both are wearing traditional Pontian-style costumes. The photo was taken backstage at a performance they did as part of the prestigious Dora Stratou National State Folk Dance Theater of Greece during the 2019 performance season.

The music in these places depends on many things. In the diaspora, sometimes paniyiria will feature a Pontian band, a laiko band and/or a demotika singer. Usually, most of the members of a given band can play these different musical styles, and for the specialized music of various regions they feature guest artists such as a clarinet player, kemence player, singer, etc. The repertoire for the core band of mainstream instruments includes many songs for the diaspora.

As Greeks, we know if we go to specific churches' paniyiria, we will find the music that we love or don't care for. As a native Greek, I don't love all Greek regional demotic music. Usually a non-Pontian can't stand listening to the sound of the kemence all night. I personally love it. I love the clarino, but I can't listen and dance to North Western Greek music all night. I'm sure many other Greeks can relate to that!

Belly Dance

Although in Greece, it's common to see a belly dance performance as part of a paniyiri, in the diaspora in North America, Australia, and the United Kingdom, that's less common. For example, at the church I belong to in Boston, you would never see a belly dancer hired to perform, especially indoors inside the church. There are, however, many other Greek Orthodox churches, throughout the diaspora that do hire belly dancers to perform, especially when the paniyiria are held outdoors.

Vendors

In the diaspora outside of Greece, the paniyiria are different from those inside of Greece. We don't always have large numbers of street vendors. The vendors set up inside the church, or outside if it's an outdoor festival. Foods such as souvlakia and loukoumades are a highlight of these paniyiria.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: The photo shows loukoumades, which are described below.

My parents go paniyiria hopping just to taste and buy fresh homemade honey-glazed loukoumades! These Greek delights are dipped in Greek honey, then sprinkled with crushed walnuts and lots of cinnamon! If you have eaten traditional home-cooked Greek food or pastries, you would know that Greeks love using Cinnamon, on everything! At least, that's what my husband noticed while living in Greece with me for 3 years! Before he commented, I'd never paid much attention to it, because I was used to it!

 

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Future Outlook for Traditions

Our paniyiria gatherings are still a way of life, for young and old, a tradition that will never die out. We hope it will still continue in the diaspora. The fear is that, since so many Greeks are now in mixed marriages and no longer stay connected with the local church, that that it will all fizzle out eventually.

There is also much fear and discussion about proposals to fully Anglicize (translate to English) the church experience. Since fewer and fewer people know ancient Greek, why continue to recite the liturgy in that language? I grew up hearing our liturgy in ancient Greek, and I can't accept fully Anglicized services. It seems scary, like an attack on my culture. Some agree with the move to Anglicize. Others disagree, saying the Greek church can't be separated from the Greek people, culture or language.

In my opinion it is one. Nobody can change my mind in this. Major controversy has arisen in the recent years. Some would like all the Christian Orthodox churches (Greek, Armenian, Lebanese, Russian, etc.) to unite as one and hold liturgy in English. They would like there to be no "Greek" Orthodox church or ideals. I sincerely hope this never happens. And I stand by my opinions of supporting and believing in the Greek Orthodox church just as it is!

Cultural dilution is even more true with the decline of Greek immigration to the United States. Such is not the case in some European Union countries or Australia who still welcome Greek immigrants "off the boat", as we say.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo was taken in August 2019 at a summer Pontian paniyiri in Athens, Greece. This one wasn't associated with a church, but rather with a cultural organization. Often, the dance floor at a paniyiri is so packed, you have to look for your own little corner to dance. Even if it means dancing in the street, in oncoming traffic! You can never have emough dancing moments in one night. Especially to the tunes of kemence!

As I mentioned above, my experience and upbringing occurred during the years where we were all first generation, born to parents who were both immigrants. Those of us born and raised to two immigrant parents have a completely different experience and upbringing as compared with those born and raised to one Greek parent. Another factor is whether or not the parent is first generation or second, or came over from the old country.

Unfortunately, many people show snobbery toward an ethnic culture and choose to raise their children as separate from the culture of their ancestors as possible. Without ties to Greek school, Greek church, Greek friends or Greek anything. Absolutely no exposure or ties. These people view it as lower class to associate within their culture. This is very real, I have seen it with my own eyes and it happens within many ethnic cultures of the diaspora.

The need to stay connected and close to the community and traditions on a daily basis is not so strong among second and third generation Greeks, nor is it strong for people who are from mixed marriages of one Greek immigrant parent and a non-Greek parent. It's just not the same in any way in terms of upbringing and lived experiences within the culture. I lived it and saw it, I know.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: I'm wearing the traditional attire representing both the regions of Asia Minors (Μικρά Ασία) Kato Panayia (Κάτω Παναγιά). This region in present day Turkey is refered to as Ciftlik. This traditional costume also represents the island of Evia (Εύβοια), which is considered the second largest Greek island!

 

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Closing Thoughts

For my own future, I made the decision to only marry someone who is still deeply connected to his culture and old country.

I am one of those who did not marry a Greek, as was expected, and as I thought I would. Instead, I married a man from a neighboring country with its own rich history and colorful culture: Syria. Despite speaking different languages, we both hold that old world, old school upbringing and mentality, which is fizzling out in the diaspora among various generations of ethnic born.

In keeping with old school traditions, we join my parents for some of their paniyiri-hopping adventures in search of the best loukoumades in town. Often, we'll even cross state lines in our quest!

ABOUT THE PHOTO: My husband Amer and I are backstage during the annual spring performance at the National State Folk Dance of Theater of Greece, where we were performing the traditional dances of Krios Orestiadas (Κριός Ορεστιάδας) which is located in Northern Greece's Evros (Έβρος). This small town was inhabited by Anatolian Greek refugees that arrived from Ortaktsi (Ορτακτσι) Andrianoupoli (Ανδριανούπολη).

 

 

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Other Uses of the Word "Paniyiria"

There is also an insulting saying "imaste ya ta paniyiria" (είμαστε για τα πανηγύρια) which means "we are for the festivals". It can refer to the way you are dressed (like a villager), or have other meaning. Although it has become an insult today, its original meaning was not insulting at all.

The word paniyiria used to be used to refer to expositions where wholesalers and vendors would gather to sell their goods. From all over Greece, buyers and sellers would travel to a few specific places for these conventions, and they would tell their loved ones "We are headed to the paniyiria."

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo was taken at a mountain paniyiri, in the Pontian Anatolian Greek village of Babalio, Aitoloakarnanias (Μπαμπαλιό, Αιτωλοακαρνανίας) on August 15, 2019. This is large annual gathering is run by my cousin Fanis Kondohristos (Φάνης Κοντοχρήστος). This paniyiri celebrates and honors the major holy day known as tis Panayias (Παναγίας). It also celebrated the official grand opening of the newly built Pontian Anatolian Greek museum which was initiated by my cousin Fanis, with the help of many local people who graciously donated various things brought over to Greece on the boat after the mass exodus. I am pictured in the far left in the back in the burgundy zoupouna (dress). We are all wearing traditional attire of the Pontian Black Sea region of present day Turkey in the style of the Anatolian Greeks. Traditional Turkish attire is different.

 

 

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Songs that Mention Paniyiria

  • Glika Glika, Glikia Mou (Sweetly, Sweetly, My Sweetheart). By Panayiota Yiota Halkia, Kelli Kelekidou, and many others.

 

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About the Author

This page was contributed by Panayiota Bakis Mohieddin, who is happy to share her culture and music she grew up with! Here's how Panayiota describes her background:

I always love engaging with intelligent like-minded people, especially artists. I love sharing anything and everything about my Hellenic culture and upbringing, especially music and dance. A conversation with me will bring you back to America's favorite Greek-American movie by Nia Vardalos called My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

I love investigating Greek culture, history, music, and dance. Speaking of investigating, I think I missed my calling, I probably should have been an investigator. Instead, I use those skills to dig and dig and dig tirelessly, often times falling asleep on my laptop... just to find the truth. But, most importantly, accurate truth. For me personally, and other respectable folklorists, my culture and accuracy are very important. Each generation of ethnic born artists has a duty to do the best it can to pass down our traditions as was taught to us. We have been given this artistic gift to be the gatekeepers of our heritage and culture.

Panayiota

 

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