Greek American Festivals in Limbo Due to Coronavirus

Buffalo, New York’s Greek Festival, 2019. All photos courtesy Hellenic Church of the Annunciation, Buffalo.

By Sean Mathews

The first week of May usually kicks off a busy month for Buffalo New York’s Hellenic Church of the Annunciation.

The women’s Philoptochos Society begins stocking up on the vanilla extract and powdered sugar necessary to make koulourakia and Kourabiedes, while Michael Valentasis starts calling his bartending crew to arrange shifts and decide how much Mythos Beer will need to be ordered.

But this year, like countless parishes across the world, Buffalo’s Hellenic Church has put their annual preparations on hold.

“It is a great loss for us in the Greek community because the festival is an opportunity for us to be together. For many parishioners, this is the one event they all volunteer for each year, it makes us a Greek family,” says Father Christos Christakis from Buffalo’s Greek Orthodox Church in an interview with Greek Reporter.

Postponements and closures are being felt in each and every Greek-American community. The spokesman of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Father Evagoras Constantinidis, told Greek Reporter, “Our parish festivals are not just small events. They are many times the event of the year for any community.”

Dancers at the Buffalo New York Greek Festival, 2019

Besides being the Buffalo church’s largest annual fundraiser (fully one-third of its annual budget comes from the event’s proceeds) the festival is a cultural occasion that lets Greek-Americans don their Evzone costumes, dust off their Bouzouki, and cook traditional dishes with their family.

This year would have marked the 44th anniversary of Buffalo’s Greek fest. After so many years it has become a multigenerational event with the initial organizers’ children and grandchildren working to bring Hellenic culture to their wider community.

“It is a big loss for the Buffalo community. The Greek Fest kicks off festival season in Buffalo and gets everyone in the mood for more events in the summer,” Milton Koutsandreas, festival Chairman told Greek Reporter.

Father Chistos echoed the loss to the wider community, saying “We open the doors of the church to Buffalo, sharing our faith and great culture.”

Greek festivals like Buffalo’s are a chance for non-Greeks to better understand Hellenic culture, and for Greek-Americans to reestablish that essential connection with their roots.

Buffalo’s Greek Festival 2019

Father Evagoras told Greek Reporter, “festivals bring people together and give our community an opportunity to offer philoxenia to the outside world… to offer them specialty items to buy from across the ocean, and even offer a glimpse of what it means to be Orthodox through detailed tours of our churches.”

With so much hard work going into the events, it is no surprise that volunteers take a certain amount of pride in their festivals.

As Koutsandreas spoke about the Buffalo Greek Fest his voice bristled with pride. He told Greek Reporter, “Musicians who come from all over the country tell me each year, ‘we tell everyone to go to Buffalo and see how they run the festival.’ This is our cultural festival. We have been true to that — we don’t turn it into a carnival.”

Each year Father Christos can be seen mingling and speaking with volunteers or greeting visitors in the gymnasium-turned-kafeneio.

Buffalo Greek Festival 2019

Visitors are given a chance to tour the church and also shop in the Greek school, which is converted into a small Plaka, where vendors sell Greek wines and spaces are open for art shops, jewelry stores, and a traditional Bakaliko for Greek delicacies.

Yet, as the Buffalo community and its roughly 250 festival volunteers wait to see what happens next, there is still room for hope.

“We only had one festival meeting,” Father Christos says. “We saw the virus developments in early March and we knew we had to cancel. Luckily, we bake almost everything fresh for the festival so nothing had been already cooked.”

Koutsandraes, who does most of the ordering, says, “Our busiest week of cooking is the week right before the festival. A lot of our food is cooked right on site that day and we do the baklava, Kourabiedes, all the baked goods a few days before.”

Since a decision to cancel was made early, the church was able to avoid wasting any food supplies whatsoever. The focus now is on waiting for New York state’s guidelines on gatherings and watching how the virus’ develops to see if they can go ahead with a festival in September of 2020.

Father Evagoras said that each parish will work with their Metropolis and have to consult their local governments and health authorities.

“For some communities, that might mean rescheduling for a time later this year, and for some, that may not be an option. It really is going to vary based on locale and the specific guidance for that area,” he added.

Buffalo Greek Festival 2019

Koutsandreas sounded optimistic that the Buffalo parish may be able to move forward with a smaller festival in the fall.

“We don’t expect the number of visitors would be the same in the fall and you have to wonder if people will be hesitant to even go out into a big group, but we have a lot of flexibility,” he says, as he points out that the traditional dancers and many musicians are from the church’s own local community and the shops in the “Plaka” are mostly run by parishioners.

Although the effect of cancelation, or postponement and downsizing, will be felt financially, Father Christos stated that the church will find a way to cope.

“This is not a catastrophe. We will find ways so this doesn’t affect the mission of the church and our community. Parishioners who are able to have been sending donations to cover the shortfall.”

The Church council is also trying to find a way to still carry out the sweepstakes fundraisers that are held at the festival every year. They hope to sell enough tickets to help cover budget shortfalls.

Other parishes will also have to somehow find ways to cope with the current strictures on events. According to Koutsandreas, “A lot of churches are going to be hurt because they count on the festival and some just pay their bills month to month.”