LOS ANGELES, CA – Everyone who has grown up in a Greek-American community has fond memories of their town’s annual Greek Festival. Although far away from my own community in Bayside, Queens I still felt a stir of excitement as we boarded the shuttle bus that would take us from the Buena Park Mall Parking lot to St John’s Church located in Anaheim, CA.
This would be the first Greek Festival my two young daughters would attend. As we arrived and were greeted by the beautiful white domes of the cathedral, I was flooded with memories of my first Greek Festival. The familiar smell of souvlaki wafting through the air, the piercing sounds of the bouzouki beckoning visitors to join hands for the kalamatiano, vendors selling honey and olive oil from their grandmother’s village in Greece.
The Orange County (OC) Greek Fest held no surprises. At the center of the event that took place in the Church’s parking lot was a dance floor. The same 20 folk songs that I can remember from my youth were played being played on rotation by Greek folk band, the Olympians. I spoke to their lead vocalist Pete Begakis, who recalled meeting his band at a Greek Festival in 1976. All teenagers at the time, the band were dancing in a Greek Folk Dance Group named the Olympian Dancers, at which point they discovered they shared a mutual interest in Greek Folk music. They came together to form the Olympians and have been playing Greek Festivals and Greek-American community events ever since.
Olympians Bouzouki player Jim Karidakis points out his son who is about to take the stage with his Greek Dance Group, Levendia. The group is made up of 15 teenagers dressed in traditional costume. They perform a Cretan folk dance that got them 3rd place at the Greek Orthodox Folk Dance and Choral Festival held annually in San Francisco. Jim’s younger daughter sits at the foot of the stage next to my two daughters clapping enthusiastically as her brother kicks his leg in the air and the crowd yells out “Opa.”
The promise of loukoumades helps me peel my little ladies away from the dance floor as we head to the massive food court. If the heart of a Greek festival is the dance floor, then the food court is definitely the stomach! I meet George, a 75 year old man and patron of St. John’s parish. He volunteers at the festival every year. Dishing out plates of marinated lamb chops is the least he can do in support of the church that has provided a community for his family since he arrived in Los Angeles 50 years ago. He was there when the Church first opened its doors. “The Church did not even have furniture the first time I came to a service. Before that they were conducting services from a tent.” I ask him about his first Greek Festival and he recalls sitting on the Church steps with his brothers eating souvlaki on a stick. “There were no rides like the ones they have now.” He points to the carnival rides in the festivals Zorba Kids Zone. “But everything else is pretty much the same, he says as he hands me a plate full of lamb chops, Greek salad and feta fries.
At the mention of the Kids Zone, my girls are off. They bolt over to the ticket both to purchase tickets to ride the rickety merry-go-round that looks like it has been jockeying children since I was young enough to ride. We reluctantly leave the area with pockets empty and arms full of stuffed toys, cotton candy and a goldfish we name Zorba!
The sun is now setting over the blue and white festival tents but the party shows no signs of dying down. The dance floor is still full, Greek beer is flowing and the lines to purchase a slice of baklava are growing. A shot of Greek coffee perks me up and we head over to the vendors. I love admiring the tables of icons. I always pause to look for St John the Baptist, after whom I was named. I remember my grandmother buying me my first icon at a Greek festival, I purchase one for each of my girls. We continue down a line of stalls selling a variety of random goods. Sparkly bangles, belly dancing scarves, incense, nuts, sunglasses, pottery and t-shirts that allow the owner to proclaim how much they love being Greek.
Night has fallen on the Festival and the Church lights up. I am beckoned inside by the warm glow seeping out from the colorful stain glass windows. I light a candle and make an offering and then slip into a pew. I am taken aback by the silence in comparison to the vibrant noise of the festival outside. This was always my favorite part of a Greek Church Festival. I remember seeking solace inside the church after an overwhelming evening. Sitting silently inside this peaceful place of worship with my family by my side reminds me what it is all about. Greek Festivals are not about the food, or the music or the trinkets or the rides. They are about community, the spirit of family and the memories they create.