If you grew up in the continental United States as a Greek American, your childhood must have included a visit to the neighborhood church festival. As the custom goes, each Orthodox church organizes an annual church festival that coincides with the feast day for the saint or holy day it commemorates. Attending a church festival is a staple of the Greek American experience. Who doesn’t have fond memories of whirling dizzily on the kiddie rides, the tempting aroma of the souvlakia on the grill, the sweet stickiness of the honeyed loukoumades, maybe one of the few times you actually got to enjoy them during the year, the endless rounds of Greek folk dancers in jingling traditional gowns, the over amped clarino bands featuring the hidden talents of Barba George, and Theo Vasili, who doubles as the usher and the graying donation collector who pushes the basket around the pews every Sunday.
Perhaps your parents made you volunteer in the festival donning a blue apron with some image that resembles Greece–the flag, the map, a donkey, the word OPA. Perhaps you are now the parent who forces their kids to volunteer or even worse, you are on the parish council of the church responsible for organizing and planning the event. Whatever your role, there is no escaping the Greek church festival especially now during the summer. Yet what many do not realize is that the concept of the Greek church festival is part of a major industry that results in millions of dollars of untaxed profit for the Greek church. In this issue, we delve behind the scenes into the institution of the Greek church festival, its history, its profits, its key stake holders and its success.
Out of the 550 Greek Orthodox churches in the US, including ones in Alaska and Hawaii, close to 400 host annual festivals, according to Mary V. the founder and compiler of Yasas.com, a business directory that acts as a calendar for church festivals. Located on the West Coast, Yasas.com serves as a publicity vehicle for many of the churches in southern California. “Some festivals have gotten so big,” she states, “that entire new buildings have been constructed or old kitchens rebuilt to accommodate the needs of the festival.” According to Yasas.com, the church festival came into its own in the early 1960s as the major fund-raising vehicle for churches in the area. Early church festivals were primarily an in-house, all-hands-on-deck type of affair. Parishioners, young and old, pitched in to prepare the dishes that have become synonymous with Greek cuisine, to bake the cookies and desserts months in advance, set up the tables, organize clean up, and all the myriad details of planning and executing the long-weekend event.
Early church festivals doubled as cultural introductions into Greek culture. In many towns in the Midwest and the West Coast where concentrations of Greek Americans were not as dense as communities on the East Coast, the local Greek Church’s festival became a way for non-Greeks to get a flavor of what it would mean to be Greek. When the local parish opened its doors for the festival, it gave Americans their first look into Greek culture and customs. The parish council and in many cases the entire church community became ambassadors for the Orthodox faith, Greek culture, and Hellenic ideals, especially since the festivals included traditional folk dancing and music.
What started out as weekend or one-day bazaars in the church basement by the women’s societies such as Philoptochos with time evolved into 3 or 4-day mega-fests that drew in tens of thousands of visitors and generated in some cases close to half a million dollars in one weekend.
The Holy Trinity Cathedral of Salt Lake City had such a history. What started as a one-day basement bazaar morphed into a blockbuster festival that draws in 50-60,000 people in three days. From the History page of its official website, www.saltlakegreekfestival.com, it states:
From 1935 through the mid 1960’s, the Mothers Organization sponsored an annual one day Bazaar. It was first held in the basement of the church and later in the Memorial Cultural Center. In 1965, the Mothers Organization became the Holy Trinity Philoptochos Society and they continued the one day Bazaar until 1975 when the Philopthochos and the Parish Council decided to do a joint effort and expand the event for two days. In 1976, an additional day was added to the Festival expanding the event to three days.
From 1977 to 1979, in an effort to accommodate the increasing number of visitors attending the Festival, the community decided to add the Cultural Center which provided seating for 400 people and also added a larger kitchen for food preparation.
As the Greek Festival continued to grow from 1978 through 1988, additional property was secured to provide additional space for the festival visitors.
In 1992-1993, the Parish Council approved the construction of a warehouse to help prepare for the festival. In addition, during this period the courtyard between the Cultural Center and Holy Trinity Cathedral was renovated with a fountain and benches and was made available for festival visitors to enjoy.
In 1992, the Hellenic Cultural Association opened the Hellenic Museum in the basement of the Holy Trinity Cathedral. The museum became the first Ethnic Greek Museum in the United States and attracts many visitors throughout the year and especially during the Festival.
With time and consistency, the local Greek church festival became the biggest cultural event of the entire state. In fact, many Greek Fests use similar slogans such as “Come , Be Greek for a day” or “For 4 days in the summer all of Richmond is Greek” as a selling point to the larger community.
The St. Athanasius Greek Festival held on the first weekend of June touts itself as “one of Arlington’s largest cultural events which draws thousands of people from all over the country.” For a parish of under 200 families, the success of the festival is unprecedented. Over 15,000 visitors flock from all over Maine and the surrounding New England area, even from around the country, to attend the fair held under a 300ft by 60ft tent on the church grounds.”
This is the typical success story for many a Greek Church fest. Pennie Contos, the parish council president of St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Anaheim, California, remarks that St. John’s Greek fest is extremely successful for three reasons: timing, branding, and volunteerism. Held every year on the third weekend in May, it is the oldest festival in Orange County (next year will be its 50th anniversary) and the first one to kick off the summer season in Southern California. The fair has branded itself as OC Greek Fest on social media and Facebook.
“Everyone loves Mediterranean food so we market heavily to the surrounding community including TV advertising, newspaper, and social media,” she states. “We have branded the festival for so many years,” she continues, “that we have repeat visitors on an annual basis. We are recognized as a staple of the larger community.”
The OC Greek Fest brings in from 8,000 to 10,000 visitors every year; for a church of less than 400 families, it is as if every one person in the parish served 20 visitors gyro and souvlaki. And in St. John’s case, where 80% of the labor is done by volunteers, that is not far from the truth. Many of the parishioners of St. John the Baptist not only volunteer to man the festival but donate to offset the costs of the fair. “We have been so successful,” notes Contos, “because we have an adopt-a-booth program. Parishioners donate product or financial to the festival.”
Another snapshot of a successful Greek Church festival is the Assumption of the Theotokos in Denver, Colorado, a slightly larger parish of 750 registered families. We spoke to Marshall Monsell, one of the festivals organizers married to a Greek, in the throes of the event in mid-June. The 3-day event makes hundreds of volunteers busy, ranging from kids of 5 years to 90-year-old yiayias and papoudes. The festival, now in its 51st year, draws crowds of 28-30,000 on average, according to Monsell. Planning for the festival takes place an entire year in advance. The yiayiades in charge of the pastischio start baking six months in advance and then freeze the food in giant industrial-sized freezers in the church basement.
As the director of food operations, Monsell cites that the festival consumes 2,000 servings of fried kalamari, 1000 lbs of leg of lamb, 20 tubs of 5-gallon feta cheese, 8000 dolmakes, 750 lbs of honey galaktobouriko, 150 large pans of pastichio, and 2000 pieces of chicken marinaded by a famous Pete Maniatis of Tripoli. The fair easily rakes in over $400K in three days. Monsell cites another big reason for its success: everything is made from scratch. Monsell, who owned a restaurant on the island of Naxos for 12 years before returning to the States, makes the point that Greeks already in the food business contribute many of the supplies for the festival. Hundreds of restaurants in the Denver area, most of which are anonymous, he states, offset the operation.
So why do it? Why go through all the stress, organizational and logistical challenges for an event year after year? “The reward is the service in and of itself,” Monsell explains, “Volunteers don’t want to be thanked. They do it because it is the right thing to do. You know how the Greeks are fighting to pay the bill and all that other philotimo stuff.”
The Assumption of the Theotokos uses the proceeds from the Festival to support its many ministries and other community causes. Every year at least $10K goes to the Denver Health and Hospital, another $15-20K goes to providing for a women’s shelter in the area.
For this church as for many others, the annual Greek festival is the single most important fundraiser for the year. It helps to pay for church overhead and maintenance, run the Sunday school and Greek language program, as well as national ministries such as the IOCC and the fund to rebuild St. Nicholas Shrine at Ground Zero.
OLD-SCHOOL CHURCH BAZAAR VS MEGA FESTIVAL
But the old-school church festival is also evolving. Mary V of Yasas.com notes that there is an increasing trend to outsource the food and activities associated with some festivals. “As the older generation gets older, they cannot put in the work it takes to run a festival of that scale,” she explains. “The newer generation because of the change in roles do not have the time to do all the cooking.”
The trend pitting old-school Greek church fest vs. new-school outsourced mega-festival can be witnessed with some of the older Greek communities around New York. Archangel Michael GOC in Port Washington stands at the forefront of this new trend. The festival is touted as the largest Greek Festival of Long Island held at the end of September, at the close of the summer season. To accommodate the huge crowds, the festival takes over Bar Beach in Port Washington, half a mile away from the actual church grounds. The festival features hundreds of stalls at the Agora flea market, amusement park style rides, a huge fireworks display on Saturday. Very few volunteers from the parish actually run the festival with the exception of the Kafenio which features baked goods and Greek coffees. Instead the majority of the festival is outsourced to external vendors. The scale of the event is so big, there are traffic lines a couple of miles long to get into the free parking lot. The local fire department and police are on hand to direct traffic and help with crowd control.
Ironically, despite the scale, the festival does not garner a 50% profit margin or more as some other festivals do because of so much outsourcing.
As the times change, so will the festival as an institution of the Greek American experience. As Marshall Monsell states, “Everybody gets to be Greek for the weekend at the festival. It is a chance for us to bring in people to share our culture to share our faith.” Did we mention it’s also a great place to get the best pastichio and souvlaki with tzatziki sauce?
Links to some of the bigger Greek Festivals:
The directory and calendar of most Greek church festivals in the US: