Festivals are much anticipated features of traditional village life in Greece. Every summer, delicious food and boisterous entertainment mix with welcoming locals and warm weather to produce an intoxicating hospitality that defines the essence of Greek culture.
For 15 years, the local Greek community has been bringing these special aspects of Greek culture to Saanich with their annual Greek Fest, running this year over two weekends – Aug. 26 to 28 and Sept. 2 to 5 – at 4648 Elk Lake Drive in front of Commonwealth Place.
“I think the unique feature of Greek culture is the hospitality,” said Michael Ikonomou, vice-president of the Victoria Vancouver Island Greek Community Society and Greek Fest chairman. “We have a word for that – philoxenia – there’s no equivalent in English, but it means ‘friends to the strangers’.”
The annual Greek festival welcomes over 25,000 guests who enjoy delicacies such as mouth-watering roasted lamb on the spit, irresistible loukoumades (honey drenched puff pastries), delicious souvlaki with homemade tzatziki and vegetarian options such as Greek salad and spanakopita (spinach pies). The large main stage hosts continuous entertainment, with over 25 different multicultural dance and musical groups from as far away as Athens, Greece.
The local Greek society dates back to 1974. For many years they participated in the popular Folk Fest at Centennial Square downtown and hosted sporadic events at their Elk Lake property. By the late 1990s, the local Greek community had grown to a size where it was feasible to fundraise to construct a Greek Orthodox Church and community centre, which was built on the Elk Lake site in 2000. The next year, the first Greek Fest opened its doors to the public.
“At the beginning it was all borrowed equipment,“ notes Ikonomou. “We only had one small tent and a small stage. It occupied about a tenth of what we occupy now.”
The event proved immediately popular.
“We got a lot more people than we expected that first year,” says current organizer Tim Petropoulos. He notes that since 2001, the festival has grown from strength to strength and is a source of pride for the approximately 150 Greek families who call Greater Victoria home.
There have been many memorable moments over the years. Petropoulos recalls the community’s excitement when Greece won the Euro football championship in 2004 and the pride when people from the community were chosen to be torch bearers as part of the 2010 Winter Olympic torch relay.
In 2012, the community opened a dedicated space in the Greek Orthodox Church to house a museum that tells the story of the local Greek community over the decades. Filled with fascinating artifacts, volunteers are keen to inform visitors that the Strait of Juan de Fuca was named after a Greek seafarer.
“He was a captain with the Spanish navy,” said Ikonomou. “He was from the island of Kefalonia and he had been working with the Spanish. He was the first one to come out here. His real name was Ioannis Phokas.”
Run by enthusiastic volunteers, Greek Fest is truly an all hands on deck effort.
“It literally takes a year to organize a festival of this size and scope,” said Petropoulos. “We have over a 100 people who band together and help out with the festival.”
In addition to the delicious food, the event promotes fun for the whole family with the heritage exhibit, arts and crafts, and face-painting.
Admission is free and food sales help the society to promote Greek culture as well as to support local charities. This year, the society is again partnering with Saanich Fire Department to raise funds for their Hot Lunch Program, which provides nutritious meals for school children.
Beyond their marquee summer festival, the Greek community hosts popular Valentine’s and New Year’s Eve dances, and bake sales at Easter and Christmas where the public can stock up on delicious Greek desserts. Cooking, dancing and language lessons and special ‘Taverna Nights’ round out a busy social calendar.
“We try to schedule as many events as possible,” said Petropoulos. “We try to keep the spirit of Greek Fest alive and flourishing throughout the year.”
Organizers are always looking for more volunteers and the festival will take place rain or shine – thanks to the large covered tents on site. And that spirit of Greek hospitality? “We hope that everyone becomes a big family,” said Ikonomou. “Basically that’s the idea of Greek Fest here in Victoria.”
For more information, visit: greekfest.ca.