LYNN — Come one, come all: St. George Greek Orthodox Church’s annual festival starts noon today in the church parking lot off South Common Street and combines love of family, faith and food into one big, three day-long delicious event.
The festival kicks off for the first time with lunch served on Friday and then moves into its traditional round of food, music and fun with diners lining up to buy meals and eat at long tables beneath a cavernous tent before visiting pastry tables and the festival raffle.
With an estimated 4,000 people attending the festival annually, the Labor Day weekend is a labor — accent on labor — of love. The festival runs from noon to 11 p.m. today, Saturday and Sunday.
“I just like seeing everybody and getting together to chat,” said Anita Rassias.
The retired Lynn educator is the informal head of a 20-woman pastry-making crew that gets to work in early August making the more than 6,000 pastries sold during the festival. Sweet treats with names like koulourakia (braided cookies), galaktoboureko (filo dough filled with custard) and, of course, baklava, are assembled on trays and baked in the St. George community hall ovens.
The women finished work on Thursday to make way for an all-male crew delegated to preparing vegetables, rice and meat for the meals served over the weekend. Held since the 1960s, the festival is the biggest fundraising effort mounted annually by the church to pay for church upkeep and support church programs.
It is also a way to reconnect with friends and a Greek heritage that, for the people who set up and run the festival, is a point of pride they love sharing with everyone who attends the festival. Zoe Haskell grew up in Saugus but her family worshipped at St. George and she participated in youth groups with elementary school friends she sees during festival weekend.
“You don’t want to lose those ties,” she said.
The festival draws Greek Americans on the North Shore together but it also attracts people from across Lynn and the region.
“This is the weekend everyone in Lynn becomes Greek,” said Saugus resident Panos Condakes.
Every aspect of the festival unfolds on a giant scale. The tent provides shelter from sun or rain for hundreds of diners and the menu reads like a supply list for a cruise ship: 1,200 pounds of pork, 1,200 pounds of chicken, 500 pounds of hamburger, 500 lamb shanks, 500 dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), 500 pounds of feta cheese and 2,000 pounds of prepared loukoumades, the signature fried dough balls.
“It’s a huge endeavor,” said Haskell.
It is also one involving planning that begins even as the tent is struck and the chairs are folded and hauled away. Organizers including 25-year festival veteran Sophia Pentikis critique what went well during the weekend and where efforts fell short. Planning for another year’s festival starts in May with a review of the critique session notes.
One of the organizers’ biggest challenges is attracting younger people to undertake the preparation work required to host the festival. Jobs and families leave people with little time for volunteer work but Rassias recalled how she had the opportunity to dedicate more time to the festival beginning 10 years ago. Pentikis’ daughter, Joanna, is in charge of social media for the festival.