If Pensacola has been smelling a little bit sweeter lately, it’s not your imagination. For weeks, the women at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church have been rolling grape leaves for Doltmathes, layering noodles for Pastito and preparing Baklava in preparation for the Pensacola Greek Festival. Now in its 54th year, the Greek Festival is a way for Pensacola to get a little taste of Greece without the long plane ride.
Since the 1700s, Greeks have been immigrating all over the world and with them they brought their traditions and values—all based on the dual foundations of Orthodox faith and Hellenism or secular Greek culture. The lives of Greek Americans were centered around the church for their religious, cultural and social needs. Greek Festivals soon became a way for Greeks to not only share their culture but to celebrate their traditions and heritage. And the Pensacola Greek Festival is no exception.
The festival features traditional Greek food, Greek folk dancing provided by community youth, and music performed by the Kostas Kastanis Band. Festival goers can also tour the beautiful Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, where the event is held.
Even though the festival is now a Pensacola staple, it has humble beginnings.
“It all started out as a luncheon to raise money for the church and it evolved into a one day bazaar. Then, it involved into a three day event in 1985,” explains Maria Weisnicht, Festival Communications Chair.
Weisnicht believes that the popularity of the Greek Festival, and Greek culture in general, is because most people are familiar with Greek culture.
“The Greeks have been around for so long that everyone feels some association with Greek history be it ancient history, the philosophers, the language, or the basis of Christianity,” said Weisnicht. “Everyone feels some connection.”
“My whole life, everything started at the Greek festival in Pensacola,” said Coco Colleen Konstantina McNeal Collins, a volunteer with the festival and Pensacola native.
In 1985, Collins’ mother took her to the very first three-day Pensacola Greek Festival. It was her first introduction to Greek culture and the Greek Church.
“Along the way of growing up, I had a solemn affinity for the Greek culture and I claimed it as my own,” she recalled.
Collins interest in the Greek culture led her to join a folk dancing group in high school, where she was immersed further in the Greek community in Pensacola. She also met her husband through folk dancing and the two of them travel all of the country performing and teaching folk dance.
“Most of the Greeks in Pensacola are form the island of Skopelos and my husband and I went to Skopelos to meet the friends of friends in Pensacola and they became family to me,” said Collins. “Eventually, one of my friends became my Godmother and I became Greek Orthodox on the island of Skopelos.”
Every year, Collins and her husband make the drive from Mississippi to volunteer at the Pensacola Greek Festival and to visit the festival and people that introduced her to Greek culture.
“Now we have Greek friends in all these different places so it’s like I am in the middle of this big family, it’s fantastic, and it’s all based on my mother going to the Greek Festival.”
At the Pensacola Greek Festival, Collins and her husband teach basic Greek dancing and lead dances.
“It’s amazing, the increase in participation, when you can give someone a few lessons and some courage,” said Collins. “It makes the public dance a lot more.”
Collins loves being able to share her love of Greek culture and dance with festivalgoers. “It’s amazing to see people enjoy themselves on the dance floor,” said Collins. “It’s more than getting together; it’s being able to experience joy with other people.”
Even though there is great food, music, and dancing, Weisnicht believes it’s the people that make the festival so popular.
“Everyone comes together and everyone is friendly,” said Weisnicht. “It’s the comradery that makes it great.”
Collins agrees. “Everything is because of the people and the way they live their lives. They are so loving and spiritual and they are showing all this by offering all these beautiful things to the public.”
ANNUAL PENSACOLA GREEK FESTIVAL
WHEN: 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 11-12; noon – 6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 13
WHERE: Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, 1720 W. Garden St.