Every September for the past 32 years, Columbia has been gifted a slice of Greek culture and tradition by way of the annual Greek Festival. This year from Sept. 20 to 23, parishioners at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral brought the rich history of Ancient Greece to the local level in a communal experience.
At first glance, there’s a lot to take in as it's a festival of epic proportions that, according to the church's website, boasts "the third greatest attendance of all Columbia events."
Outside, the smell of fresh gyros and souvlaki lingered from grills and the sound of traditional music transported visitors to a Columbia that's been trapped in time. On the inside of the church gymnasium visitors could purchase pastries, browse for items at the Greek grocery store and watch live dance performances. Donned in homemade costumes, the children and teenagers of the church participated in Greek folk dancing, where they perform approximately every 15 minutes.
Elizabeth Chiarel and her family first moved to Columbia nine years ago. Raised Greek Orthodox, she immediately found her home at the church not to soon after her arrival into town. Since then, she has volunteered at the festival gift shop where she currently resides as one of three chairpersons.
“I believe that the Greek Orthodox Church and being Greek and being Greek Orthodox ... goes together. So here at our festival we not only showcase culture by showing our dancing ... we also have our church next door which is what really started the whole festival," Chiarel said.
Proceeds from the festival are mostly donated to local charities. Following Columbia's flood in 2015, $10,000 was donated to Harvest Hope. Last year alone, the church raised $60,000 for other Columbia charities. Additionally two T-shirt quilts, made from T-shirts from previous festivals were auctioned off for charity.
For over 32 years, parishioner and faculty member of USC's College of Pharmacy, Dr. Stan Papajohn has designed the gift shop's t-shirts. Among this year’s t-shirt designs were Carolina and Clemson editions.
In addition to the food and dancing, inside of the church itself visitors were granted access to self-guided tours where they could watch the painters finish the iconography of the Cathedral's ceilings.
Father Michael Platanis has been head of the parish since 2008 and has since then overseen renovations of the cathedral. After commissioning artists from Athens, Greece in 2011, the painters have been diligently working in an 18-week period over the course of eight years. They are currently in phase four of the project and expect to unveil the finished product on Sept. 27.
George Kordis, the head iconographer, is a professor of iconography at the University of Athens. One of his assistants Kanellos Kanellopoulos, is a former Greek champion cyclist who participated in the 1984 Olympics and currently holds the Guinness world record for the longest human powered flight.
“Being Western people ... everything we do is really based in Ancient Greece, in ancient Hellenic ideals of democracy, philosophy, science, and our language, English language, is 80 percent Greek, so what happens when people come here is they connect to something that’s really their own and that’s significant for me,” Platanis said.
First-year engineering student Leah Atkinson is a Columbia native and has been aware of the festival for years. She and two of her friends walked from campus and all agreed that they were most excited to taste the food.
“You don’t want to be so caught up in your food that you don’t want to try different cultures or foods," Atkinson said.
Although the festival is well-known for fellowship and fun, Platanis recognizes the Church's important role as one of the central threads that hold the community together.
"We're the ones who welcome people into the city of Columbia," Platanis said. "You turn right off of Elmwood onto Main Street and there you find us on your left and you see an icon of Christ ... This is a very crucial role that this church and that this festival by extension performs or fulfills in this town."