The Festivals and Customs of Sifnos

The Sifnos Panagiri, the Fools Carnival, and Mr Vorias!!

Sifnos is one of the Greek islands that really manages to keep alive it’s traditional customs and festivals. The Sifnos Panagiri, the Fools Carnival, the dance of Mister Vorias (North Wind) and the traditional Sifnian wedding to name a few.

The Panagiri.

The most popular of all the festivals of Sifnos is the Sifnos Panagiri. So what is a Panagiri? I hear all non Greeks asking. The simple answer is – a traditional fiesta celebrating a saint’s name-day, held in the church bearing the saint’s name.

At least once a year at most of the islands churches and monasteries (don’t forget that Sifnos has 365!) a Panagiri is held. To start with there is the church service followed with a feast of traditional Sifnian food and plenty of local wine. The significance of the meal reminds us of the ancient “agapes” (love feasts).

After the food and drink comes the merriment – local music provided by violin and lute, accompanied by singing and dancing, and this occasionally lasts until sunrise! Some of the churches hosting a panigiri are located in the mountains and the walking distances to reach them can be anything from one to two and a half hours. Generally the panagiri’s held in the evenings have more of a festival atmosphere while those held in the mornings tend to have a more serious religious nature.

What makes the Sifnian panagiri different to similar ones found on the mainland and other Cycladic islands is the complete absence of commercialism. The expense of each panigiri is undertaken by a Sifnian family. The family wishing to undertake this financial obligation must declare it on the day of the panagiri the year before. The cost involved includes the provision of all the food and wine for everyone who wishes to attend (usually in the hundreds), the fees for the priest and a donation to the church to cover the cost of the maintenance of the church and all it’s buildings for the year.

The Traditional Sifnian Marriage, an enormous ritual, before and after the actual ceremony in the church, where apart from the bride and the groom, a leading role is played by the best man and best woman. It’s a musical ritual that can last for 2 days and nights. Wedding guests are all presented with “pasteli” (nougat with honey that is offered in diamond shaped pieces) a marzipan cake and “bonboniere”. The bride is also obliged to dance with anyone who cares to while accepting improvised poetic good wishes.

The Name Day Feast, constitutes a social and cultural event. In the Orthodox religion people are christened with the name of a saint and instead of celebrating the birthday, they celebrate the saints name day. So for example January 6th is St Johns day and anyone with a name derived from the name John can expect well wishers throughout the evening. In return “John” will provide wine and titbits to eat for the guests and the party atmosphere will continue until the early hours of the morning. What makes this more fun is that you’ll usually know more than 1 “John” and of course you’ll have to visit them all!

Revithia & Mastelo. A very particular Sifnian family custom is the preparation of Revithia and Mastelo. Revithia is the chickpea dish that is cooked over a Saturday night in a traditional earthenware pot to be eaten after church on a Sunday. In the weeks just before Easter, the traditional midnight food is Mastelo, this lamb dish is also cooked in an earthenware pot and in the same wood burning oven as the revithia.

Pottery

The Sifnos pottery industry is a major part of the heritage of Sifnos; throughout Greece the word Sifnian is synonymous for potter. A tradition going back many centuries to the Pre Cycladic period, examples of Sifnos pottery art and household items, dating from as far back as the 8th Century BC can be found in the archaeological museum in Kastro.

You might ask why Sifnos? Why should this small Cycladic Island become such a dominant force in the manufacture of ceramics? This can be attributed to the superior clay found on Sifnos, combined with the purity of the spring water. Another contributing factor was the abundant supply of Lentisk, used for firing the kilns.

It is no coincidence that the main centres of manufacture on Sifnos were, and to a major extent still are, in Platis Yialos, Kamares, Vathi, Faros, and Heronissos. These well protected bays made the sea transportation of the finished goods possible and evidence of this are the examples of Sifnian pottery which have been found all over the Mediterranean.

The success and skill of the Sifnos potter also led to individuals leaving Sifnos to start new lives on other islands and the mainland, particularly in Lesvos, Tinos and Marousi in Athens, where even today, recognizable Sifnian family names can be found above the doors of ceramic workshops.

The life of the Sifnos potter was originally very simple, he would spend all week at his workshop at the beach, returning to the family home in the village on a Saturday night to spend Sunday with his family before returning to his workshop on a Monday. His only form of entertainment would be meeting friends in the village square or attending a Panagiri which would always be a special occasion.

In 1947 there were 91 wheels and 50 kilns in 46 workshops on Sifnos, mostly in Platis Yialos (15) and Kamares (13) with 200 – 250 people being directly employed. The introduction of metal cooking pots and pans and mass production techniques for crockery saw the decline of the Sifnos pottery industry.

With the introduction of tourism to Sifnos, the industry was thrown a lifeline and the ceramics industry took a new direction. The techniques and skills are the same but no longer making just practical ovenware, chimney pots and water carriers, now aesthetics play an important part with decorative elements being incorporated into the pottery design. The family names and traditional methods used by generations are still visible today, the numbers involved in the pottery industry are much fewer today but shops can be found all over the island selling the beautiful, highly decorative and in some cases unique ceramics.