Rows of souvlaki-on-a-stick were laid across a grill, the meat’s smoky heat wafting through festival tents.
Young girls flaunted purple and pink hip scarves tied to their sides, the attached gold-colored coins jingling with any slight movement.
For a culture with a tradition of hospitality, this weekend’s Greek Festival at Buffalo’s Hellenic Orthodox Church of the Annunciation was an open invitation to the entire community – equal parts cultural experience and celebration, said the Rev. Christos Christakis.
“We’re sharing our traditions, our faith, our culture with our neighbors. We open the doors to the entire community,” Christakis said. “Also for us, it means that we come together as a community to do that because it’s a huge undertaking.”
Approximately 1,000 Greek families live in Buffalo and an estimated 10,000 people were expected to pass through the festival by its end, Christakis added.
Food stands were decorated with faux Grecian columns, where festivalgoers lined up for takeout containers and plates crammed with spanakopita, souvlaki and gyros – sometimes by the armfuls. On a makeshift dance floor, grownups linked fingers and danced in a circle to the upbeat tempo of a clarinet, drum and keyboard combination as small children pranced around attempting to mimic the intricate footwork.
Peppered throughout the weekend were performances by Greek dance troupes from Toronto, as well as lectures discussing topics such as the Olympic Games and mythology.
It was the dancing and the food, combined with the welcoming spirit of the Greek community that prompted Vanessa Irizarry, 43, of North Buffalo, to return for a second year in a row.
“The upbeat heart of the Greek people – I like it. They like to share with other cultures, no problem at all,” she said.
Festivalgoers seeking a temporary respite from the food and music outdoors could head into the church, where 8-foot panels outlining Greek civilization through World War II were displayed. A documentary detailing the church’s centennial also played hourly.
Fotini Koutsandreas, a Greek language teacher at the church, translated any name into Greek letters onto buttons with hand-drawn images ranging from the Parthenon to basketballs. A boy named Dylan handed over the button he chose – one with theatre masks – and politely requested his name be written with an orange-colored marker.
“We’re just here to help you, to have fun with you,” Koutsandreas said.
But the festival is also a way for the church to thank the community for its support, said Michele Hiczewski, a volunteer who sold Greek pastries, including baklava and koulourakia, over the weekend. Proceeds from the festival help sustain the church, she said.
“We rely on the community for this, and we thank the community for this,” she said. “If there was nobody here, it would be very, very hard for us.”