As the longest days approach each year with the Summer Solstice, hundreds of volunteers throughout the community gather together with the singular purpose of tending to the numerous details, tasks, and nuances that collectively pull together all the elements that make the annual St. Demetrios Greek Festival one of the most pivotal celebrations to resonate throughout the Great Lakes Bay Region.
Happening Father’s Day weekend from June 16-17-18th, this year will mark the 39th year that festival organizers will provide three fun-filled days of ethnic music, dance, and the finest variety of authentic & sumptuous Greek cuisine to the tri-city region and beyond.
The levels of community involvement generated by this annual gathering on the church grounds of St. Demetrios church, which is located at 4970 Mackinaw, epitomizes what both a church & community are capable of achieving, having grown consistently to a point where it not only brings friends & family together, but draws in tens of thousands of patrons from all points of the state, eager to indulge themselves with the many flavors & components of Greek culture.
Opening at noon each day of the festival and with admission set at only $3.00, with children 12 and under admitted free and Senior Citizens also admitted free on Friday from noon to 4 pm, the true heroes of this annual celebration are the members of St. Demetrios Church, who gather together every weekend beginning in February to bake & prepare the many delectable items that populate the incomparable menu of the Greek festival. Each weekend different teams consisting of 20 to 40 people assemble to tackle the preparation of different food items, with various committee chairs assembling together the teams.
Heading up the organizational network that diligently attends to the numerous details that make this celebration possible are 2017 festival co-chairman Mark Legner, who has worked closely with the festival for over 20 years now; and new festival chairman David Nichols, who has many insightful thoughts about how to shape the architecture of the Greek Festival so that it continues to appeal and draw commitment and support from future generations.
“I’ve been with the church for almost five years now and was drawn to it for many reasons,” explains new Greek Festival Chairman David Nichols. “I grew up in this area and my father’s side of the family is Greek, plus I’ve always been interested in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. I grew up Catholic and married a Greek woman in Lansing, moved back to Saginaw, and became involved with the church. Almost immediately I was drafted to the Parish Council, where I am currently Vice-President; and I thought the Greek Festival was another good leadership role for me to take on.”
While not a stranger to the mechanics of the Greek Festival, having volunteered to work it in prior years, David cites the biggest challenge involved with his Chairmanship role is “all the organizational decisions that need to be made and trying to think about my role in terms of advancing the future of the festival.”
“There’s a common feeling among the church leadership that we need to involve younger blood with the festival, so I’ve been thinking a lot about how to prepare for the festival for the next generation – not just how to keep it going – but how to best make the connection between food, culture and music and advance the things that need to be done to evolve the festival into the future,” he reflects.
“Saginaw is changing and has changed since the festival started 39 years ago,” he continues, “and the population has changed not just in terms of numbers but also demographics. I think we’re in the unique position to have developed something that appeals to both the young and old, plus Greek food is always good no matter what age.”
A philosophy professor at SVSU, Nichols says he also has been thinking quite a bit about what makes a festival a festival. “I also teach Greek philosophy and Greek mythology and can tell you that some of the elements of our festival are very old, featuring traditional Greek dances from islands that are thousands of years old; and whether people realize it or not, the food & recipes they consume at the Saginaw Greek Festival are the same way.”
“I think the festival fulfills a certain desire among young people, especially college-age folks, looking for something cultural and authentic to relate to; and Saginaw needs something cultural, not necessarily Greek, but a cultural access for people to identify with.”
“Thousands of years ago the citizens of Athens would celebrate with the Great Dionysia Spring Festival, where people would play music and where the first tragedy, comedies, and satiric dramas originated from; and later in the fall the ‘Lesser Dionysia’ was held, which is when the wine is first fermented. So there is something about the Saginaw Greek Festival that is very ancient and to my mind, what makes a festival great is authenticity.”
These ancient festivals that originated in Greece were also a means to honor the goddess Demeter, who taught mankind to tend the soil. According to Greek legend, Demeter also gave mankind the gift of agriculture, so the festival began as a means to offer praise to the bounty of the harvest.
“Beyond the commercialism of the Bud Light banners and Pepsi cans and so forth, there is some kind of original truth about the festival that supports its appeal,” Nichols asserts. “There are so many original cultural elements from the music that is played with traditional Greek instruments to the food, which is always fresh and local and make from traditional recipes, to the Church tour where people can see our various Byzantine icons. With all of this going on, the authenticity of our festival then becomes sacred. Some people say we should replace the live Greek bands with recorded music in order to save money, but that can never happen because it’s this authenticity that draws people to the festival.”
Over the years St. Demetrios has also set up an endowment fund with many of the proceeds from the annual Greek Festival that is now close to a million dollars to benefit different community organizations and projects. Last year they contributed considerably to the Flint Water Crisis and each year they also fund local athletic teams and have sponsored a large number of local charities and numerous other specific needs of the community.
Attendance to the Greek Festival usually averages around 40,000 per year, although according to co-chairman Mark Legner, last year was not as good as prior years largely due to the weather. Two years ago, however, attendance was the highest ever and last year they went through 65 gyro cones. Making the various authentic Greek desserts served at the festival is a process that begins in February, considering that with the Baklava alone, an amazing number of 46 sheet pans need to be baked.
“Between setting up the stage and through the course of the week leading up to the festival and the week of the festival I probably have 130 hours of time invested each year,” reflects Mark. “Legner has been working the Greek Festival for more than 20 years, having moved back to the area in 1993 and first becoming involved as chairman of the festival the following year in 1994. He has witnessed continuous evolution of the festival and says he hopes it can continue well into the future because of the many ways it helps the church and community.
In addition to the remarkable food, drink, dance, and camaraderie, raffles will also be conducted throughout the 3-day festival with cash prizes; and Sparky the Fire Dog will also be there on Saturday from noon to 2 pm, plus the Michigan State Police will be on hand Saturday to take fingerprint ID’s of children in the pastry tent. Additionally, the festival will feature face painting for kids on all three days and Senior Citizens age 55 and up will receive free admission on Friday from Noon to 4 pm.
As Festival Chairman, Nichols also shares a similar investment of time and energy into the festival. “We have a great team of people involved with the festival committee and they’ve all been helpful to me as the ‘new guy’,” he states. “Basically our goal is to galvanize the community to accomplish a very large goal; and this year we’ve worked out an arrangement to have approximately 150 students from Nouvel High School to help us out, along with 30 from the Bayside Clubhouse. Plus, Heritage High School is sending us assistance, so we are fortunate to have a lot of volunteers this year.”
“Now all we need is to bring on the good weather!”
“The membership of the church has increased the last couple years,” relates David. “We have an older church but have experienced some success at bringing in new members, which is part of my job, too. Through the Greek Festival we’re able to allow potential new members to see the ancient and sacred artwork we display and will be playing Byzantine chants inside the church. Our minister Father Timothy Cook is very involved and very effective at reaching out to young folks and has done some great things for our church community.”
“For my money, the Greek Festival is still the best deal in town, concludes Nichols. “I mean come on, only six bucks for a gyro, the calamari are always fresh, we offer a wide variety and large menu of authentic Greek food; and honestly, at no other place can you go and experience that much access to great food all at once, along with authentic folk entertainment.”
“Saginaw has been through a lot of economic turmoil in recent years and the Greek Festival offers an opportunity to break up that ordinary everyday experience and have a memorable time interacting with the community.”
“For me that’s what makes all the work involved with staging the Greek Festival worthwhile – those moments where you catch people feeling the festival and witness spontaneous outbursts of joy where start dancing in the parking lot.”
“You can’t put a price tag on those types of experiences and moments.”