The Greeks have a rich heritage and culture going back thousands of years. Greeks love life and a festival is the perfect way to share that enthusiasm through food, music, dancing and socializing.
The Pensacola Greek Festival was started by the parishioners of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in 1959 as a luncheon to share their culture and heritage and as a fundraiser. The first chair was Lulu Stamitoles – her family members still play a critical role in the current festival. As the festival became more popular, the bazaar was expanded to two days and then to a three day event in 1985. As many as 30,000 people show up over the three day weekend. The church itself serves about 150 families but its connection to the local Greek community is much larger.
One of the definitions of Hellenism is admiration of Greek ideas, style and culture. That makes all of us Philhellenes – lovers of all things Greek! Greek Festivals in America have evolved as a way for Greek-Americans to share their culture, traditions, heritage, food, dance and fun loving spirit of Greece with the local communities.
Since the 1700’s Greeks have been immigrating to the US and other parts of the world. As these immigrants settled throughout the US, they brought their ways of life, their traditions and values – all based on the dual foundations of Orthodox faith and Hellenism (secular Greek culture). The lives of Greek Americans were centered around the church – for their religious, cultural and social needs.
The Greek Orthodox Church has always played a major role in the movement to preserve Hellenism. Greek was the original language of Christianity and was influenced by Classical Greek thought. In America, most Greek Orthodox churches sponsor Greek language schools, partial use of Greek language in church services, religious and cultural summer camps, and festivities to celebrate both church feast days as well as celebrations of Greek secular holidays.
How did the Greek Festival in America come about? Each year most Greek Orthodox churches, both in the US and in Greece, would sponsor a festival (paniyiri) to celebrate the name day of the church’s patron saint. (Ours is March 25 for Annunciation of the Virgin Mary). In the US, these types of celebrations have expanded to a larger festivity that reaches out to the local community. These festivals give the church members a chance to share and celebrate their heritage with their neighbors. Almost every Greek Orthodox church in the US now hosts a Greek Festival.
Not everyone with Greek heritage is active in the Orthodox faith. And many members of the Greek Orthodox Church do not have a Greek ethnicity – coming from other Orthodox churches (Syrian, Coptic, Romanian, Russian), marrying into the faith; and some have converted from other Christian denominations. But most people, Greek or not, are attracted to the ideals of Hellenism and the culture and traditions demonstrated in the local festivals.
Preparing for a festival of this size is a tremendous amount of work for the parishioners of Annunciation. During the many months of preparation, parishioners have a chance to re-connect with each other and with so many volunteers. But more importantly the Festival lets the Greeks share their hospitality – the food, the music, the dancing and their joy for life – with the Pensacola community. If you’ve ever been to Greece, you will have experienced the warm, loving hospitality of the Greek people. That is what you will experience at Pensacola Greek Festival.