When Lent is over, the partying begins.
Ikaria is one of the few places in Greece where the ancient panegyri tradition continues. A panegyri is a community festival held in honor of a village church’s patron saint. Villagers and guests eat, drink, and dance long into the night and often until the next morning. Everyone is welcome to the celebration, and if you find yourself in Ikaria in the summer you absolutely must go. Watch for the posters on walls and signboards.
Panegyria are important summertime social events for Ikarians of all ages. A folklorist might point out that this annual event in the life of the village reinforces values and social bonds within the village community; it also provides an opportunity for the community to negotiate identity and confirm their place in the larger island context by acting in the host role. Even a small village church can attract hundreds of visitors. Back in the old days, panegyria offered the perfect chance for young people from different villages to meet each other. They still serve this purpose to some extent today.
There are certain things you can count on at an Ikarian panegyri. It will take place outdoors in a plaza or park adjoining the church. There will be traditional dancing, usually to live music. Food for sale will be homemade and will always include roasted or barbecued lamb or goat, Greek salad, feta or similar cheese, village bread, and homemade wine (“doppio”). There will be a blessing by the priest to start things off in the morning and the church will stay open so visitors can look inside and light a candle. The party will start off pretty sedately, with lots of old people and families. By 11 or 12 at night, a good panegyri can really get hopping.
Then there are features that are unique. Agios Stathis (September 20) is up on a mountain outside Arethousa without electricity; the panegyri there is lit with a bonfire and flashlights, and the music is acoustic. Agios Yiannis (June 24) in Raches has a bonfire that young men jump over, and the girls burn their May Day garlands to bring love and good luck. Some panegyria are on beaches, others on mountain tops or in forests. Between Easter and the end of October, there are over a hundred panegyria in Ikaria.
We saw posters for two panegyria being held the day after Easter. We asked around and learned that Agios Georgiou was expected to be small but fun, with good musicians.
Agios Georgiou is in Vardaradon, up a somewhat nerve-testing road on the mountain above the village of Plagia. It was well worth it.
The setting was lovely
The food was simple, local, and delicious
The musicians were skilled
And the dancing was lively.