My­co­ni­ans party old-school at their lo­cal paniyiri

More than cel­e­bra­tions of im­por­tant re­li­gious oc­ca­sions, church fairs across the coun­try are op­por­tu­ni­ties to strengthen com­mu­nal spirit

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY ELEFT­HE­RIA TRAIOU *

De­spite the sweep­ing so­ci­etal changes brought about by the is­land’s front­line po­si­tion in the Greek tourism boom, the My­co­ni­ans – like Greeks all around the coun­try – con­tinue to cher­ish their tra­di­tions and their com­mu­nal iden­tity, both of which are in­deli­bly linked to their faith. One of the best ways to see how this works is at a church fair, or paniyiri, which is not just a cel­e­bra­tion of an im­por­tant re­li­gious oc­ca­sion, but also an op­por­tu­nity to strengthen com­mu­nity spirit and its bonds with the past.

Dimitra Sikin­iotou-Na­zou, a lo­cal re­searcher of folk tra­di­tions, ex­plains the back­ground of the paniyiri and how this in­sti­tu­tion has evolved. “The is­land’s liveli­hood used to de­pend on the sea, and the con­struc­tion of a new church, along with its an­nual paniyiri, was a vo­tive of­fer­ing made by sailors,” she ex­plains. “They would vow to a par­tic­u­lar saint to build a church in his or her name and to hold a fair ev­ery year in their honor in ex­change for their benef­i­cence. At these churches, they would pray for suc­cess­ful jour­neys and a safe re­turn to their is­land. Even after My­conos be­gan de­pend­ing on tourism rather than mar­itime com­merce and fish­ing, the fairs re­mained much the same, an of­fer­ing by lo­cals ask­ing for good health, good busi­ness or what­ever other pro­tec­tion one asks from one’s saint.”

There are around 600 churches in My­conos to­day, and each will hold a paniyiri, big or small, on the day their name­sake is cel­e­brated. These fairs are usu­ally or­ga­nized by a few fam­i­lies who are re­spon­si­ble for look­ing after the par­tic­u­lar church. Friends and neigh­bors will pitch in, do­nat­ing money or time, to en­sure that the fair is a suc­cess. Putting such an event to­gether is no easy task, and prepa­ra­tions can be­gin as much as a month ear­lier. On the eve of the saint’s day, the church will be freshly white­washed and decked out in the flags of the nation and the Greek Ortho­dox Church. The cook­ing will start in the kitchen area of the church’s “keli,” or util­ity room. The star dish of any paniyiri is al­most al­ways a hearty stew made with goat or ewe. The juice from the stew is of­ten served separately in on My­conos have a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing among the liveli­est in the Cy­cladic is­lands, so don’t be shy about drop­ping by. The feast starts after the even­ing mass and, once the mu­si­cians get the crowd danc­ing, things usu­ally carry on well into the wee hours of the night. glasses, like a good wine; it’s said to brace the body and set­tle the stom­ach, which is a wise pre­cau­tion given the abun­dance of ac­tual wine and heavy food (in­clud­ing the stew it­self, sausages, spicy cheese or per­haps some onion pies) that is usu­ally con­sumed dur­ing the course of the fair.

In the sum­mer, rows upon rows of ta­bles are set up in the church court­yard and, de­pend­ing on the turnout, this makeshift din­ing room may even spill over into an ad­ja­cent field or street. On the day it­self, the faith­ful at­tend­ing morn­ing mass are of­fered Greek cof­fee, mas­tic gum liqueur or cognac, biscuits, sweets and other dainty del­i­ca­cies. The feast starts after the even­ing mass and, once the mu­si­cians get the crowd danc­ing, things usu­ally carry on well into the wee hours of the night, al­though some fairs can last two or even three days.

The suc­cess of a paniyiri, whether great or small, is a mat­ter of pride for its or­ga­niz­ers. The smaller ones tend to be the most in­ter­est­ing be­cause they of­ten re­tain their sense of oc­ca­sion and mod­esty, not turn­ing into the drunken party that some of the larger ones can be­come. At these smaller events, vis­i­tors con­trib­ute by bring­ing along a bot­tle of wine or a dish they have pre­pared at home. The mu­si­cians per­form on tra­di­tional in­stru­ments like the tsabouna (bag­pipes), the toubaki (a drum), the fid­dle and oc­ca­sion­ally the ac­cor­dion, all un­plugged. The whole crowd joins in age-old dances, with some of the men tak­ing the op­por­tu­nity to im­pro­vise flashy new moves.

Wealth­ier or­ga­niz­ers tend to put on a big­ger show, at­tract­ing hun­dreds of The most cel­e­brat­ed­mu­si­cal in­stru­ment on My­conos is the tsam­pouna, a proud mem­ber of the bag­pipe fam­ily. Its bag, or main body, is made from goatskin and its mouth­piece is made from reed, goat bone and cow’s horn. Michalis Kouna­nis, aka “Ba­belis”, is a mas­ter of the in­stru­ment. He never misses an op­por­tu­nity to play for an au­di­ence, even to­day at the ten­der age of 80 and de­spite the fact that his in­stru­ment of choice de­mands en­durance and strong lungs. “A good mu­si­cian,” he ex­plains, “is not nec­es­sar­ily some­one who re­mem­bers all the tunes; it’s some­one who drinks, sings and en­ter­tains his lis­ten­ers with a story or two. We old-timers know very well how to cre­ate a good time, sim­ply be­cause in our days there was no other way to have one. No tele­vi­sion, no mo­bile phones.” guests with abun­dant food and wine and a clear em­pha­sis on wild rev­elry. At these fairs, larger mu­si­cal en­sem­bles, some­times even from other is­lands, pump up the vol­ume and let ev­ery­one know the party is on. Here, you’ll find sound sys­tems, more in­stru­ments (in­clud­ing the bouzouki, the lute, the baglama and the gui­tar), and dif­fer­ent gen­res of mu­sic, too, like rem­betiko – al­ways a hit with tourists – and dances drawn from other parts of the coun­try, such as the clas­sic has­apiko (with a My­co­nian twist, of course).

The church fairs on My­conos have a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing among the liveli­est in the Cy­cladic is­lands, so don’t be shy about drop­ping by. Once you’re there, no one will let you leave be­fore you’re wined and dined. It’s al­ways a good idea to bring a bot­tle of wine or a dessert to pay your re­spects to your hosts, but more im­por­tantly, bring a healthy ap­petite for fun * This ar­ti­cle first ap­peared in Greece Is (, an English-lan­guage pub­lish­ing ini­tia­tive by Kathimerini..

The church fairs

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