What is a Panigyri?
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A Panigiri is a centuries old traditional festival organized during the summer months mainly in the villages of Greek islands where the main saint is celebrated. The host of the festival is the “panigiras”, a local who has the honor to carry the icon of the saint to his home for a year and bring it back on the day of the celebration to be blessed during the liturgy.
The festival is not only chanting and praying, but also good music, plenty food and local wine, the three key elements that make a Panigiri successful. After the ceremony people sit together, taste soup, olives, meat with sauce, cod, Greek salad, drink lots of wine toasting the panigiras. Locals and their guests dance and sing traditional island music till early in the morning. A Panigiri is the balance between the wild and the serene, the tradition and the innovation, the relax and the lifelike joy. The festival is an occasion to get youngest and oldest together, to meet locals, to dance, to talk, to drink and eat, to feast.
From the book Culture and Customs of Greece by Artemis Leontis (2009, Greenwood Press) “Perhaps the event that best summarizes how Greeks experience religion is the panigyri, the celebration of a patron saint or feast day that encompasses almost every aspect of the Greek Orthodox religion…The panigyri begins on the eve of the feast day of a saint or a major religious holiday. Panigyri (plural panigyria, from pan, “all” and agora, “a gathering of people”) is the word Greeks have been using since medieval times to name a community’s feast day celebration. Like its medieval predecessors, today’s panigyri combines rituals, prayers, and processions with feasting, singing, and dancing with abandon.
A Greek village can be a dark, silent place. Its population may diminish to a handful of octogenarians in winter. But around the time of a summer panigyri, people arrive in droves. The population may swell to several thousand, and the noise level rises radically.
Anticipating a great gathering from the surrounding villages and distant cities where the village’s emigrants live, shop owners and village authorities set up rows of long tables and chairs across the town square, leaving room at the center for dancing around the stage. The smell of roasting lamb fills the air. When they encounter strangers arriving early, villagers return hard, unrelenting stares. A Greek’s gaze can be unyielding.
Traffic starts to jam on the few roads leading to the village from the four compass points as evening arrives. On the roadside, peddlers set up booths to sell their roasted seeds and nuts, cotton candy, halva Farsalon, (a buttery sweet made from rice flour and sugar), plastic toys, Philips electronics and Luis Vuitton handbag knockoffs, pirated CD’s and DVD’s with the summer’s greatest hits, silver jewelry, antique lighters and coins, old stamps, tablecloths, towels, doilies, religious items, and even precious heirloom handicrafts from a destitute person’s hope chest. An old man walks toward town with a bundle of helium-filled balloons shaped like unicorns and elephants. People abandon their cars and begin to walk while browsing the merchandise.
In the late afternoon the clergy, acolytes, and villagers parade the flower-decorated icon of the patron saint around the square. They return to the Byzantine-style Greek Orthodox church that dominates the square to complete the vespers service. In the square the scent of incense lingers.
As dusk arrives emotions rise. Shouts of joy, questions of “Where have you been?” and “When did you arrive?” accompany unexpected reunions. Baskets of lamb ribs, shoulders, legs, and an occasional head with glaring eyeballs, breads, salads, and liters of wine make their way down the tables. The band imposes its sound above all others, superimposing a strong club beat to the 7/8 rhythm of the traditional dance called kalamatianos syrtos. The singer’s flat, distorted voice and the wildly amplified bouzouki compete with a happy mix of human exclamations. In no time a long sinuous line fills the dance floor. It will continue to swell and meander until late night, when the slow songs of abandonment, unrequited love, and bitter defiance take the place of of peppy line dances. Now a few lingering men, decidedly drunk, take turns improvising heavy jumps and turns of the Zeybekiko. The store owners begin to break down tables and chairs.
Morning comes. The loudspeakers in the square broadcast the Divine Liturgy. Villagers and guests now follow the procession of clergy, acolytes and icons around the entire village. After church the square’s coffee shops fill with the name-day celebrants and their guests. Eyes locking in warm embrace, friends and strangers wish one another hronia polla (may you live many years), then criss-cross the square to pay their feast day visits.
Throughout Greece this scene occurs in endless variations. Every village or neighborhood has its special saint’s or feast day: St. Basil on New Year’s Day, Theofania (Epiphany), Evangelismos (the Annunciation), St. George, St. Thomas, St. Irene, Sts. Constantine and Helen, the Ascension, Pentecost, Sts. Peter and Paul, the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, St. Matina, the prophet Elijah, St. Paraskevi, St. Panteleimion, Metamorphosis tou Sotiros (the Transfiguration), the Koimisis, (Dormition or Repose of the Virgin Mary), Tou Stavrou (the Elevation of the Cross), St. Dionysios, St. Demetrios, the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, St. Andrew, and St. Nicholas are just some of the feast days cellebrated with abandon in Greece. Especially during the warm spring and summer months, panigyria fill the countryside. Local musicians play traditional and contemporary tunes and rhythms.
Everywhere the same elements combine: chants, rituals, liturgy, heirarchy, icons, processions, burning candles and the community of the faithful, on the one hand, and loud instrumental music, and singing, food, drink, dance, the wares of a country fair, the high spirits of enthusiastic crowds, on the other hand. The Holy Spirit and high spirits, sacred and secular intertwine so seamlessly that it is hard to grasp where the one begins and the other ends, even though some celebrants’ scant dress seems hardly compatible with church models of modesty.
The integration of material and spiritual, and the emphasis on sensory pleasure as an essential approach to divinity, are deeply embedded, not just in popular practices but also in the Greek Orthodox Church and its rites. Those rites seem somber and severe at first glance but contain the theological germ of Greece’s earthy, material celebrations and a belief that Divinity is not far from the realm of the human.“