When celebrating culture becomes a tradition

By Tara Pettit

Photo: The Virgil Donati Band will perform at Oddbody’s on Sept. 11

Today when you hear about Greece, you automatically associate it with banks, budgets and bailouts. Recent news about the country and its ongoing economic crisis has permeated media coverage of the small nation, so much that you begin to wonder if there’s anything left to celebrate about one of the world’s most historically-rich cultures.

While the Greek government may not have much to celebrate right now, that doesn’t stop the average Greek. Greek spirit is still alive and well, unhampered by the tumultuous political climate, and none celebrate all that is still beautiful and unique with Greek culture quite like the Greek community in Dayton.

As the 57th annual Dayton Greek Festival returns to Dayton Art Institute once again on the weekend after Labor Day, you can come see for yourself what remains truly inspiring about the strong, spirit of Greece: that its people and the opulent culture they represent can never be damaged, or, for that matter, bought out at any price.

“Working to Live”

If you don’t know much about Greeks, they can be accurately described as a lively group of people that “works to live,” explains Deb Pulos, long-time member of the Orthodox Greek Church and this year’s Greek Festival coordinator. Deb, originally from Chicago, married a first generation Greek man and has been involved with the festival for the past 20 years.

First-gen Greek and Dayton resident George Karras echoes that sentiment.

“Americans definitely ‘live to work’ but the Greeks are known to ‘work to live,’” Karras says.

Eating, drinking and being merry with one another for hours on end is how you will typically encounter these people, Karras goes on to explain, and upon your encounter with them you will be filled with a sense of belonging, acceptance and connection.

The Greek Festival is one of the most anticipated and most attended of the year with between 20,000 and 25,000 visitors annually.

Those who have attended or regularly attend can attest to “that warm and inviting feeling you get” when engaging with all the traditional, but much beloved, activities that define the annual gathering, Pulos says.

“People look forward to this all year,” Pulos continues. “Everyone I talk to about the festival tells me they can’t wait to go.”

Celebrating Tradition

The Dayton Greek Festival remains largely the same year after year, offering the best of traditional Greek food, crafts and entertainment that people expect to see and enjoy, Pulos notes. When asked if there was anything new or different we can expect at this year’s festival, she says she had thought about it but that she would have to answer that with a definitive no, given that the festival is and has been a cornerstone of Greek culture and the Orthodox tradition ever since its beginnings as a small family parish picnic.

“I think one of the things people really like about this festival is the consistency from year to year,” Pulos says. “They know when they come, we’re not serving new food and we’re not having some new twist on the music. It almost mirrors the Orthodox faith in that what you got 57 years ago is what you’re going to get now. We’re just very good at what we do.”

While the festival celebrates all cultural aspects of Greece, there are two key aspects that truly exemplify and connect the community to the real Greek spirit when they attend the festival:


From the popular gyro sandwiches to the moussaka (eggplant casserole) and baklava (nut and syrup pastry), the festival offers a plethora of traditional Greek dishes prepared from scratch by some of the founding women of the Greek Orthodox Church.

The church women start cooking for the festival in June, Pulos says, and some of them are well into their 70s and 80s. They dedicate their entire summers to cooking, which is a unique aspect of the event and part of what makes it an authentic tribute to Greek tradition and culture.

Ninety-five percent of the food at the Greek Festival is prepared in the church kitchen, an important aspect that will remain true to the event as new generations of women are now being taught how to prepare the dishes by the original cooks.

“Watching the older women making the food, especially the pastries, is a great experience,” Pulos says. “I really enjoy it.”

Music & Dance

“I would have to say my favorite thing about the Greek Festival over the past 20 years has been the dancing because it’s such an ongoing tradition,” Pulos continues.

Tradition and true spirit are clearly revealed through the custom Greek dancing as a fundamental aspect of its culture that is integrated in daily life from childhood. Greek children learn how to dance when they’re four or five years old and don’t stop dancing.

Dancing is such an integral part of Greek culture (believed by ancient Greeks to have been invented by the gods as an offered gift to mortals to be taught to fellow men) that it is a central expression of the Greek religious ceremony and closely tied to faith worship and social events.

“I will always go out and watch the kids dance every year, even though my own children aren’t out there anymore,” Pulos says. “I love to support the children from our community and congregation as they are out there.”

What it Means to be Greek in the Dayton Community 

George Karras will tell you that being Greek is all about faith, family and community.

“We have a zest for life,” Karras says. “We work enough to where we are able to enjoy our lives and that is evident at our festival.”

Karras, a first generation Greek American whose parents immigrated to Dayton in their early 20s, plays an integral part in the Greek Festival every year as a member of the band that plays while the dancers perform. To him, the festival is just a public expression of what goes on in the Greek Orthodox every single day—a way for the Dayton Greek community to share its culture and heritage with the larger Dayton community.

“It’s not only our biggest fundraiser to keep our church going, but it’s how we share and give back to the community,” Karras says. “Greeks are some of the most loving people you will meet. We will treat you like family and the first thing we will do is open our doors to you and share our culture.”

Greek culture, although perhaps unbeknownst to many Daytonians, is deeply embedded in the fibers of the Dayton community. From early large factory establishments like Bluebird Bakery to the Golden Nugget in Kettering and the various Skyline locations scattered throughout the area, Dayton is home to many first, second and even original Greek families who started their lives here—first as poor immigrants, and eventually becoming prominently established and successful business people.

Karras explains that Greek families are known to be among the most successful cultural groups to immigrate to America in terms of beginning with nothing and working hard to become a successful people.

“When the immigrants came over, they were very poor and the only thing they could bring with them was their faith,” he explains. “It is what got them through and one their church was one of the first things they established when coming over. It was not just their religion, but their social connection. So, our festival is very much a celebration of who we are as a people and those who come are amazed at how much of a family-oriented event it is.”

When Karras reflects on the current news and events surrounding his home country in light of the celebration of Greek culture that will be part of the upcoming festival, he is saddened by the choices the Greek government had made and how it has impacted the native people. However, he reaffirms the belief that the bleak economic situation has not dampened the Greek spirit, there in Greece, nor here in Dayton.

“Even with all the government’s mistakes, the people are still the same,” Karras says. “Everybody still has a zest for life and a love for their faith, family and community.”

Karras and his family will be working this year at the festival, as they have for every year since the festival started. Karras will be on the festival stage like always, playing in the band and narrating the children’s dances. He says it’s one of the most enjoyable parts of the festival for him and he is inspired by the participating children.

“In this day and age when you watch the news it’s all doom and gloom,” Karras says. “But here in Dayton, at our church and at our festival, you can be inspired by our youth, our future people, who love their church and family. It’s the exact opposite of what you’re seeing in the world.”

The Greek Festival is a weekend vacation away from the troubles of the world. There, you can celebrate with some of the best celebrators of the world, if only for three days. There, you can take away a little piece of Greek spirit that continues on even in the worst of times.

And that’s what the Greek Festival is all about.

The Dayton Greek Festival will be held on Friday, Sept. 11- Sunday, Sept. 13 at 500 Belmonte Park, North, next to the Dayton Art Institute. Admission costs $2 per person and children under the age of 12 get in free. On Friday from 11 a.m.-5 p.m., admission is free. Parking is available on the streets surrounding the church. Shuttles will run every hour on the half hour and will drop you off at the festival entrance. For more information about the event, please visit daytongreekfestival.com.

Reach DCP freelance writer Tara Pettit at TaraPettit@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Tara Pettit is a regional journalist and communications specialist with a focus on the arts, social/environmental justice issues, and community activism. She is passionate about cultivating intentional community and engaging in collaborative creative projects that make healthy community possible. Reach her at TaraPettit@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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