Feast Days

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Apologies to all in case my three previous posts, ones that all dealt with the topic of rare storms, have given the impression that Sifnos in winter grinds to a halt. No, not at all.

Sifnos, in fact, is very much alive at this time of year. Almost every second day or so you’ll find somewhere on the island a church adorned with colourful flags aflap in the breeze and from inside, there’ll be the smells of cooking going on, clear signs that there’ll be a party there that day. With plenty of food and of drink. Musicians too. And, this being Greece, priests. Plenty of priests.

I know precious little about Greek Orthodox religious practice, but this I do know – this church has plenty of saints and each one of them has their own feast day. So on Sifnos which is said to have 365 churches, ranging from humble field-side chapels to soaring structures where entire towns gather to worship, each named after a saint, that means plenty of such celebrations. Panagyria on this island have two distinguishing features. Revithia is an essential part of the meal. No surprise that, for chick pea soup is Sifnians’ most famous dish. And more than almost anywhere else that Greeks gather for such an event, I’ve been told, such celebrations here are open to one and all. Even strangers are welcome to join in, no matter from how far they’ve come.

A panagyri is organized most often by a single family as part of the responsibilities for “their” church. This is a duty taken seriously indeed. One woman with roots on the island and who grew up in Athens told me that in her entire lifetime, she’s never once missed a single one of her family’s annual panagryia in one of the most remote parts of Sifnos.

I was hiking once on the monopati, the island’s ancient stone paths, and came upon Agios Giorgios, one of the churches here named after Saint George, this one high above a lonely section of its eastern coastline. I sat for a while on a stone bench in its front yard, awestruck by the brilliance of the light bouncing off its snowy white walls. Then, needing a respite from the heat, I went inside, into an interior a world away from the sun-splashed one outside. It was dark in there, one might say gloomy, with aromas of incense, melted beeswax and cool stone. I stayed awhile under the supervision of its stern gold-haloed saints, but eventually, as one does, had enough of the reverence in there and went back outside. For some reason I pushed on another door, something I seldom do because I’ve learned that outbuildings at churches around here are usually kept locked. To my surprise this one was not and I went in. I found myself in what might be called a church hall, a low-ceilinged room filled with long tables and benches and with cabinets filled with plates and bowls and whatever else you’d need to serve a large crowd. Beside it, there was a well-equipped kitchen. Shelves laden with jars of salts, peppers and myriad spices. Stacks of large and well-worn clay bowls. Briki in various sizes, the vessels used for boiling Greek coffees. Most fascinating to me was a pair of metal pots as tall as a small child and almost my full arm’s length across. George, I remember thinking, will be well-feted on his feast day.

I’ve long wanted to go to a panagyri, but sadly there seem fewer of these at the times of year that I come to this island, and so I’ve never been. However I have friends who have. They hiked up a rough hillside and arrived moments after sunset at a church nestled inside what remains of an acropolis wall built in the Mycenean era. Ask them to this day and they’ll describe the whole experience up there as otherworldly. And fun. One of the priests had brought along a companion, his dog who sat at his side through the entire church service, respectfully, elegantly, hilariously so. The event’s organizers were honoured that my friends had made this trek, so deeply touched to see them there that they insisted they be in the first group to be fed. Music in the courtyard outside lasted long into the night. My friends did too. So did the priest. That’s how it’s done around here.

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