The Greek culture has much to celebrate: the philosophy, the dancing and more importantly, the food.
In its 53rd year, the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church has been inviting the community to share in the celebration of Greek history and heritage. On average about 10,000 people gather at the festival over the course of the weekend.
“Why do Greek Orthodox churches have Greek Festivals?” asked Maria Weisnicht. “Family, village life, the celebration of holy holidays is the center of the Greek culture. When the Greeks came to the United States, they brought that with them.”
“We’re really proud of the Greek language and traditions,” Weisnicht said. “Greeks really enjoy life.”
Weisnicht travels to Greece frequently to immerse herself in the culture and visit relatives.
“I have an uncle who lives in a little village in the mountains in Crete,” she said.
These trips often inspire new concepts for the festival.
“I think of all kinds of ideas and I do my best to make them happen,” Weisnicht said. “We are constrained by the size of the facility, but in all that we do, we pay attention to quality.”
Don’t worry, you don’t have to have Greek ancestors to get in on the festival fun.
“Lots of people participate in our church who have no Greek heritage,” Weisnicht. “My husband is German and Norwegian and is very much a part of the church.”
Weisnicht is very much a part of the church as well, as a long standing member for the past 30 years. She also volunteers as the communications coordinator for the church, but expresses that being a member of the church is a non-requisite.
“We’re not trying to convert anybody,” she said.
What may be required is a love of food. Months of preparation goes into the festival’s biggest draw. Most of the dishes, such as dolmathes, grape leaves stuffed with ground beef, rice and herbs, desserts and calamari, sell out before the end of the weekend.
“A lot of the dishes are from family recipes,” Weisnicht said. “Some we’ve been using for 30 years.”
“This is a food fest,” said Sissy Watson, who helps handle the food preparation.
Watson, who is Greek, has been a part of the church her whole life.
“I was born, raised and baptized in the church,” she said.
Working the festival since she was 20, she and approximately 18 volunteers prepare the weekend’s festive dishes months before the festival date.
“At a Greek festival, there has to be lamb, dolmathes, moussakea, Greek beans, baklava,” she said. “We’re kicking fanny with the dolmathes, we’ve already prepared 10,000.”
Athena Staviski, another life-long member and obviously Greek, loves the bond that the volunteers share.
“It’s a tight-knit family,” she said. “Whether they can roll a grape leaf or not, they’re welcome.”
The ya-yas—Greek for grandmother, prep the pastries.
“They’re the heart and soul,” Staviski said. “That’s their turf.”
Even with over a dozen volunteers, there is still a lot of work to be done. Watson and one other volunteer prepared almost 100 pounds of noodles—for just one dish. To avoid selling out of the calamari, which Watson’s husband prepares, they have 1300 pounds to sell, but all of the work is worth it to church volunteers.
“We enjoy bringing the Greek culture to the greater Pensacola area, the lines may be a little bit long, but it’s worth it,” Watson said.
While you’re waiting in the long lines, you can purchase an iced coffee or slushie baring festive names such as Grecian Green Apple.
One of the new additions to the festival is the chance to purchase Greek food goods, which can be hard to find. Greek companies are small and items such as olive oil—Greece is third largest producer of the product—are grown on family farms.
“We’ll have things like spices, pastas, olives and olive oil,” Weisnicht said. “It used to be when I was a kid I would have to search far and wide for feta cheese.”
You can also take in a tour of the beautiful Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, which is 103 years old. The Greek Festival began at the celebration of the church’s 50th anniversary.
Once you’ve had your fill of food, head to the dance floor and watch traditional Greek dances and enjoy live music from Kostas Kastanis Band. And be prepared to be asked to dance.
Children of all ages lead the dances. Staviski danced as a youth.
“They’re easy enough to follow so that people will feel comfortable enough to attempt dancing,” she said. “The dancers try to ask everyone to get up and dance, I think everybody enjoys that.”
Now, she gets to watch her three daughters dance while she tends the vendor booth selling various traditional Greek items and an official Greek Festival t-shirt, which Staviski helped design.
“I’m really excited about it,” she said. “It’s has the graffiti bridge on it, but we changed the graffiti to Greek words.”
No matter what you’re heading to the festival for—food, dancing, t-shirts—you’ll leave feeling like a part of a big, Greek family.
“What makes our Greek festival different is the energy,” Staviski said. “It’s one of the most bonding experiences, a lot of the Greek people in Pensacola come from the same island, Skopelos, and all have great stories.”
Watson stresses for people to come to the festival with outstretched arms.
“When you sit at our table, you’re automatically our friends,” she said.
PENSACOLA GREEK FEST
WHEN: 11 a.m. Friday, Oct. 12 and Saturday, Oct. 13; 9 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 14 WHERE: Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, 1720 W. Garden St.
COST: Admission is free