Summer in Crete is the perfect time to have fun the Cretan way, as the traditional feasts that take place throughout the summer (and especially in August) are literally countless! Known as “Panigiria” or “glentia” in Greek, traditional feasts in Crete translate to live traditional music, ecstatic dancing, vast amounts of food and lots of fun until the early morning hours!
Panigiria were always connected to religious celebrations, the most important being the Dormition of the Virgin Mary on August 15, when almost every Cretan village and town hosts a big feast. Today, traditional feasts are also organized to celebrate a local product, such as honey, olive oil, graviera cheese or wine. Whatever the inspiration, one thing is for sure: if you are in Crete in the summer, you will find a panigiri near you!
Panigiria have a centuries-old history in Crete and served an important social purpose: they offered an opportunity for people to meet and socialize, for young men and women to flirt (and perhaps end up married!), to celebrate tradition and the culture of sharing and bonding, and -of course- to take a break from everyday chores, have fun and relax. The word “panigiri” derives from “panigiras”, a bestowed title given to a local who had the privilege of keeping the icon of the Saint to his home and bring it back on the same day next year, when the Saint was celebrated, to be blessed during the liturgy. In contrast to our times of abundance, the panigiria of the past were not necessarily rich in food, and in some places, only watermelon and raki was offered, while everybody contributed to the collective table.
Today, panigiria are not quite the same as in the old times, but they remain a joyful celebration of tradition, socialization and an occasion to break free from everyday routine. Most panigiria today are organized by cultural associations in a central public space, such as the village square, around a temple, or even in a school yard.
Volunteers do their best to service guests and offer the famous Cretan hospitality. Some feasts have an entrance fee that includes a full course meal (usually meat, potatoes or Cretan pilaf accompanied by a salad and dessert) but many of them are open and free of charge and you can buy traditional dishes or souvlaki from street vendors. Tables and chairs are available (better to go early if you want to catch a place) and set around the main stage, where the musicians will perform, always leaving enough space for dancing. The big star of the night is usually the lyra player, and some people even travel from far away to attend a specific feast, where their favorite lyra player will perform.
Panigiria bring together the old and the new and are a great opportunity for visitors to meet locals, try traditional dances, food and drinks, and experience a Cretan feast, while the warm weather and the laid-back summer mood add up to the feeling. Wherever you are in Crete in the summer, just ask a local when and where the next panigiri will take place near you!