The panighiria (plural: panighiria, sing.: panighiri) are religious festivals honoring the Saint to whom the church is dedicated. In Greece, a festival, either private or public, without food is unthinkable. Thus panighiri continues after the Church service with celebratory meals and in many cases with music and dance. In the past the panighiria were in the center of social and religious activities of villages and towns. The truth is that in a way they still maintain a prominent place in local life. Friend, visitors, even foreigners are always welcome to these meals and dances.
In central Greece, panighiria take place at the church yard or the central square. In Crete and some islands, most households prepare a range of foods and keep their doors open until late into the night. However the most loved panighiria are those held at small churches or monasteries in the countryside. Locals and visitors celebrate with a special dish or with a panoply of foods. Of course, different communities celebrate the same Saint with entirely different dishes.
Agricultural harvests are usually connected with panighiria. When the grapes are picked, when the olives are collected and a Saint’s day is in order, then the first grapes or olives are blessed by the priest and then are offered to the crowd. This kind of offering is based on the primordial human logic, which places importance on the concept of: if a god will receive a gift he will return it back. According to this logic, ancient Greeks offered “aparhes”, the first crops of the season, to thank the gods for giving blessings and abundance.
In past the total amount of food being offered was local; today most dishes still are, but some are national as the country near to big cities looses its rural roots. In any case, the main characteristic of these religious and social gatherings is the celebration through eating and sharing.
On 26th of July I visited the panighiri of Agia Paraskevi- the patron Saint of the eyes- in Karano, a small village in the mountains of Chania, a few kms before Omalos.
The original church of Agia Paraskevi was dated back on 14th century. It was an extraordinary building as was wrapped by the branches of two huge dramithies (Pistacia Terebinthus). Unfortunately, 60 years ago a woman promised to build a new church in the place of the Byzantine one, a promise made when her child suffered form severe illness. Today, only few stones remain from the old church, built into the new walls.
Every year, on 26th of July, the space around the church is transformed into a place of fulfillment: several dishes are arranged on tables and wait for the people to share them.
Usually the inhabitants of Karano prepare this public meal with food based on local products. In the last years some ready made sweets have been added by visitors, however the main meal is always cooked at home. In any case, the quality of the food is always a subject of informal competition and a sign of skill.
On the same night, which happened to coincide with St. Panteleimon’s eve, we have been invited to a friend’s house. She had a 45 persons’ dinner for the feast of Saint’s name. We enjoyed: calitsounia stuffed with vlita, zucchini flowers and fresh myzithra; stuffed vegetables and dolmades; Greek salad and boiled greens; spicy meatballs; liver ala savoro; pilafi; staka; boiled free ranged chickens and kid baked over a bed of thyme in a wood oven; fruits, avgokalamara, and a gorgeous galaktoboureko. The dinner was ended with some local songs for the table (tavla songs), sung without accompaniment by two teams of singers.