Patronal feasts (panigyria)

Patronal feasts today are nothing like they were in days gone by, one by one they cease to function, as the reasons for their existence disappear. Nowadays only a handful of villagers actually bother to attend mass in the celebrating church. There is no longer any need for the associated fair to be held, where the villagers used to sell their livestock or purchase tools and material. The young people take a car or bus into the nearest town if they want to enjoy themselves, young girls no longer wait to be chosen as brides and villagers communicate with emigrant relatives by telephone.

More and more often, on attending a panigyri, one asks oneself why it is still held. Is it perhaps a case of acquired momentum, force of habit, a collective custom which no one wants to be the first to stop? And yet the panigyri continues to be held, year after year, even though it is barely recognisable to those who remember it in the old days, for the panigyri is the ultimate confirmation of autonomous community life. Without it a village is no more than a cluster of houses. The panigyri is a general mustering of the vital forces of the village and the villagers insist on attending it as long as they actively acknowledge their origin.

As a general rule, the more remote a village is from an urban centre or the coast, the less its patronal feast has altered. Sometimes local government (the Community) plays a role in its character, depending on whether a more consumer-orientated panigyri is preferred or a more traditional event. Those panigyria organised by the tavernas and coffee shops along the main street or around the village square, whose chief concern is to sell bottles of beer and roast meat, bear no resemblance to the feast of yesteryear. A tiny platform is set up for dancing, tables and chairs set up around and professional musicians hired who know none of the regional songs and usually play current hit tunes on the bouzoúki, electric organ and drums.

Sometimes the local authorities are inspired to organise a "festival" including performances by groups of children, who perform on an improvised dais to recorded music. The audience applauds and everyone goes home. There still exist, however, some authentic panigyria where old customs are still observed and maintained. Others have been revived by the younger people in the village, after a lapse of many years. They have asked the old folk what things were like when they were young and have tried to preserve those elements maintainable under current conditions, without resorting to artificial intervention. They have sought out local musicians and singers and asked them to play only local songs.

For anyone interested in traditional dances, the panigyri is the best opportunity of observing them in their natural context and even of joining in. As an outsider, however, he should be aware of local habits and protocol so that his participation does not offend in any way. He cannot join the dance just anywhere -especially if he does not know it - nor can he join in when a family is obviously dancing. He should not take photographs of the dancers if he sees that this bothers them and he should make sure his dress is acceptable. All in all he should be as unobtrusive as possible, for if he stands out as a stranger the locals may feel they are under observation.

Before going to a panigyri it is best to ask for further details beforehand, either from a villager or by telephoning the secretary of the Community. The patronal feast may no longer be celebrated or have lost its authenticity all together. It is also advisable to make sure one has transport to return late at night, or to have somewhere to sleep there. It is always much better if one knows people from the village, with whom one can sit at table, who will introduce him to their fellows and explain the local customs. Ideally, one should stay in the village for a few days before the feast and a few days afterwards, in order to imbibe the atmosphere, take part in the preparations and hear the comments once it is over. This is the only way to study the old mores in detail and depth.