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In Greece, this word means several things: hello! Cheers! To your health! In Jamestown NY, however, it signifies something else: the jovial, spirited, and food-filled Yassou Festival put on annually by the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church.
The festival, which traditionally occurs every Father’s Day weekend, is slated to run rain or shine this Friday, June 16 and Saturday, June 17 from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. This year will mark the festival’s 35th anniversary: 35 years of celebrating Greek heritage, Orthodox religion, and Mediterranean culture in the city of Jamestown. And the 2017 Yassou Festival – like all those that came before it – guarantees a weekend full of mouthwatering baklava, traditional Greek dancing, a live bouzouki band, and much more.
So no matter your ancestry, your hometown, or your religion, come down to Mt. Vernon Place in Jamestown to kick off the summer at the Yassou Festival – where the parish and clergy of St. Nicholas Church invite you to become Greek for the weekend.
35th Yassou Festival
Jamestown’s first Yassou Festival was held in 1982. The idea for the festival came from the parish council as well as the priest at the time, Reverend Father Nicholas Rafael. Both parties wanted to create an event that would introduce Greek culture and Orthodox religion to people beyond church walls. The Greek festival, which was intended to be both entertaining and educational, would fill a necessary, diversifying space in a city whose citizens were primarily of Swedish and Italian descent. Above anything else, the festival would promote inclusivity, hoping to engage people of different backgrounds in one immersive, cultural experience.
“There was a courageous group of parish members who had both vision and enthusiasm,” said Alexis Singleton, a member of the Yassou Festival Committee. “Their idea was to share our heritage with the broader community. That’s really the same goal with which we deliver the festival today.”
According to Singleton, the Yassou Festival has not strayed from this goal or changed much as an event in the last 35 years. Perhaps that is because the parish of St. Nicholas understands the adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The festival still boasts many of the same offerings that it did in 1982: food and drink, music, dancing, a boutique, a play-tia section for children, and church tours. And every year, these offerings continue to draw an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people onto the church grounds.
“We have made minor changes [to the Yassou Festival] along the way, but in essence it is still the cultural festival that it originally set out to be,” Singleton said. “People come to this event from all over. Our parish has a 100 mile radius. But [parish members] usually man the booths; the majority of attendees are just Greek for the weekend. We’ve started calling it #Greekend.”
What is it about Yassou that entices people to travel from far and wide? Arguably the biggest draw of the festival is its homemade Mediterranean food, a cuisine that is not readily available year-round in the greater Jamestown area. The festival’s extensive menu features over 20 traditional Greek dishes as well as Greek beers, wines, and non-alcoholic beverages.
“I think in many ways, the Yassou Festival is primarily a culinary experience,” Singleton said. “What makes this particular Greek festival so special is that we make everything from scratch. We don’t just order frozen dishes from the major Greek manufacturers, heat them, and serve…We’re boiling the pasta, browning the meat, and seasoning the sauce. We’re very attentive to the ingredients we use and the quality of the food that we’re serving.”
Try the homemade souvlaki dinner, which features marinated cuts of pork or chicken nestled alongside pockets of pita. Or get a taste of the spanakopita, a savory pastry filled with crumbled spinach and sharp, melted feta cheese. Or satisfy your sweet tooth with the festival’s all-time favorite dessert, baklava: nuts and warm spices layered between flakey layers of phyllo dough, all drenched in a golden honey syrup.
“Food is a big part of the Greek culture because we gather around food,” Singleton said. “We’ve found that the Mediterranean diet is not only good for our bodies, but good for our souls.”
Another large draw of the Yassou Festival is the weekend entertainment. Attendees are invited to work off all the baklava and koulourakia by learning traditional Greek dances to the soundtrack of a live band. They can follow along with the Hellenic dancers onstage, costumed in embroidered vests, shimmering belts, long skirts for the women and cinched tunics for the men.
“Dancing is a tradition, a culture, that is being handed down through our families,” Singleton said. “Our dances are realistic, celebratory representations of what is danced in Greece today. You could go to a village and dance these same dances.”
Of course, part of the charm of these dances comes from the live bouzouki music emanating from within the festival’s big tent. This year’s festival will feature the musical stylings of The Aegean Duo, a Greek band that performs both Greek folk and popular music.
“Live music makes for a much fuller experience for both the dancers and the audience,” Singleton said. “These guys provide a really authentic representation of Greek music and make the Greek spirit come alive. With them, we’ve got the whole enchilada. Or the whole souvlaki, I should say!”
Finally, the Yassou Festival offers attendees a chance to learn not only about a new culture, but a new religion as well. All weekend long, tours are given of the domed, impressive St. Nicholas Church, offering up information on the church’s history and Greek Orthodox religion as a whole.
“[This church] was founded by Orthodox Christian immigrants in Jamestown in 1922,” said Reverend Father Jarrod Russell, the church’s presiding priest. “St. Nicholas Church today reflects the American experience with families from various nationalities and continues to serve as a beacon of the Orthodox Christian faith.”
While many of the parish members at St. Nicholas come from a tradition of Greek Orthodox religion, Singleton urges festival attendees not to be intimidated by the faith. She says that the church’s doors are open to everyone.
“You don’t have to be Greek to attend the Greek Orthodox Church,” she said. “We want people to see what it’s all about and just get a flavor for what it is. They’ll see that it’s very accessible.”
In an effort to do just this, the Yassou Festival will be featuring something a little new this year: a half-hour church service known as Great Vespers. Vespers is traditionally a sunset prayer service led by a priest, which includes songs and hymns.
“All of these things come down to informing community,” Singleton said of the festival’s various events. “It’s about how we can open our arms, share some experiences, and elevate the individual and group experience at the same time… Things like this are what make [Jamestown] a place that we want to live in and be an active part of. In many ways, this festival is our contribution to that community.”
So come experience Greek culture, Orthodox religion, and the greater Jamestown community this weekend at the 35th Yassou Festival. Tickets for the event cost just $2.00, with children 12 and under receiving free admission. More information on St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and the Yassou Festival can be found on the church’s website, StNicholasJamestown.org, or the church’s Facebook page.