Volunteers make cookies for the upcoming Greek Festival at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church Parish Hall. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

About 20 parishioners of the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church gathered at the church’s Parish Hall on a recent Friday to shape and bake roughly 5,000 koulourakia cookies in preparation for their upcoming festival.

“Everybody’s just happy to be here making cookies all day,” said festival committee member Demetra Giatas, looking around the room as people scooped dough and rolled out the sesame-topped butter cookies, laughing and chatting while bouncy Greek dance pop played in the background. “Who wants to make cookies all day? But look at the smiles.”

After a three-year pandemic hiatus, the 39th Greek Festival is set for Thursday through Saturday at Holy Trinity in Portland’s West End, and event volunteers are thrilled by the prospect of holding the event in-person again for the first time since 2019.

Roughly 90 volunteers in all have been working since March to prepare the massive amounts of food needed for the hugely popular event.

Domna Giatas of Portland rolls out dough into koulourakia cookies while preparing for the Greek Festival at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church parish hall. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“It’s been so great to be reconnected with people without masks on and without distancing,” said Giatas. “And it’s been wonderful for everybody to come together again and be around each other for all these baking, cooking and planning meetings, because we are a community.

“It’s almost like absence, that three-year lapse, made the heart grow fonder,” Giatas said.


“What I’ve noticed this year is there are fewer people complaining about how tired we are. We used to complain a lot,” festival committee member Ann Pollak said with a chuckle. “But I think we genuinely missed this.”


The Greek Festival doesn’t require tickets, so organizers have had no official way to track attendance in the past. “But thousands of people come,” said committee member and former lead festival organizer Greg Tselikis. “How many thousand we don’t know for sure – three, four, five?”

Tselikis has a better handle on exactly how much food volunteers prepare for the festival, almost all of which sells out over the course of the event. He said it takes, in part, 600 pounds of lamb and pork, 300 pounds of gyro meat, 300 pounds of Greek cheeses, and 100 pounds of olives, along with more than 10,000 pieces of pastry and cookies.

“We sell more food in three days than most restaurants would do in a month,” Tselikis said.

A tray of freshly baked baklava for the upcoming Greek Food Festival at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church parish hall. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Food sales from the festival – the church’s only annual fundraising event – historically amount to around $100,000, Tselikis said. But the Greek Festival wasn’t held in 2020 or 2022, and organizers restricted the 2021 event to a limited takeout menu, which generated about one quarter of the usual revenue.


As a result, the church has had to defer capital improvements to its historic buildings, including refrigeration and plumbing upgrades to the Parish Hall.

“But it’s not all about the financials,” said Holy Trinity Parish Council President Bryan Snell. “A lot of it is about the community engagement. We want it to be as much like a Greek village square experience as you can have in Portland, Maine. You get some Greek culture, taste it through the food and hear it in the music. And you get a little exposure to the Greek Orthodox faith, if you take the time to tour the church.”

Snell said the event is also an opportunity for the church congregation to reengage with itself, and longtime volunteer Helen Blewett heartily agreed.

“The people who show up to work for the festival have developed their own kind of community during those days,” Blewett said. “There is an eagerness for the parishioners to be together for something other than Sunday services. It’s a lot of hard work, but it means everything to the people who put it together.”

Jeanie Butler of New Gloucester applies egg wash to koulourakia cookies while preparing for the Greek Festival at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church parish hall. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Blewett, who is in her early 80s, said that because of some physical challenges she’s facing this year, she hasn’t been as involved in preparations as much as usual.

“However, people like Demetra Giatas have stepped up and taken over in a very significant way, so I think that’s encouraging,” Blewett said.


Giatas, in her 50s, said there’s been some “natural attrition” in the festival worker ranks since she first started volunteering 15 years ago. Some members have passed on, others have moved and still others may be devoting their free time to other pursuits.

“But many people have come up in the ranks, and there are so many of the older parishioners who have taken younger members under their wings to say, ‘Hey, this is how you make the cookies and how you do this.’ It certainly feels like a cross-generational effort now.”

“The 50-year-olds have taken the place of the 80-year-olds. That’s how we’re able to continue,” said Tselikis.


Some even younger members of the parish have devoted their time to the effort as well.

Kathryn Stefos, 29, who moved to Portland at the start of the pandemic, was raised in a Greek church community in central Massachusetts.


“I have all of these fond memories growing up and making cookies and pastries with my yia yia (Greek grandmother) and father, and going to Greek festivals was always the most exciting time of the year,” Stefos said. “Now the older I get, the more I see it as my responsibility to keep these traditions alive, both because I like it and also just to pay homage to my family, my culture and my heritage.”

Stefos volunteered to help make koulourakia on a recent Saturday, guided by the elders.

“I was watching them roll the dough, and I was like, ‘It’s been a while, but I’ve still got the skills.’ So I started rolling, and they were looking over my shoulder going, ‘Oh yeah, that one’s too big, that one’s too small.’ Helping me get it right. It was fun.

Kathryn Stefos of Portland rolls out dough into koulourakia cookies while preparing for the Greek Festival at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church parish hall. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“The older Greek ladies are very particular about the ways they do things, so I think they went easy on me,” Stefos added.

“I have seen enough young people joining us this year, where I’m like, ‘Oh, these people are almost half my age. This is a really good sign,’ ” Giatas said.

Holy Trinity also has come to pride itself on its diversity within the congregation. Over the past two decades, the parish has welcomed immigrants from Albania, Serbia, Eritrea, Ukraine, Romania and more, who practice the Eastern Orthodox faith. Snell said the church has members representing 17 nationalities, and a flag for each country stands in the church entryway.


Still, the festival – running from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. for each of its three days – is a full-on celebration of Greek food and culture.

Volunteers started cooking for the event in March, beginning with baked casserole and pie-style dishes like pastitsio, moussaka and spanakopita, which they stored in commercial freezers in the parish hall. Items like grilled souvlaki, roasted marinated half chicken and loukoumathes – deep-fried dough puffs coated with hot honey – can’t be fully prepared in advance, so are cooked during the festival.

Longtime volunteers know the dishes that are crowd favorites at the festival, like baklava, pastitsio – baked pasta and ground beef with bechamel sauce – and kourambiedes, ground-nut cookies with a serious coating of powdered sugar.

A volunteer sprinkles sesame seeds on koulourakia cookies while preparing for the Greek Festival at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church parish hall. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“The kourambiedes are really delicious, you just can’t breathe in while you eat it,” Giatas said. “Many an amateur has been caught off guard.”

“The recipes for all this food are the same ones we’ve always used,” said Pollak, the festival committee member. “We don’t alter the recipes, so there’s consistency there.”

Still, friendly dissent arises from time to time regarding the best way to make a particular dish.


“There are conversations which I’ve taken part of,” Giatas said with a knowing smile. ” ‘My yia yia didn’t do it this way. This is good, but my yia yia did it that way.’ ”

“The work is very, very labor intense. It takes an enormous amount of time,” said Tselikis, noting that the lamb shish kebabs alone take as many as 20 people to prep. “What we have found is that people look forward to doing it, even though it’s hard work. They enjoy the camaraderie of it.”

“The Greeks are always up for a good party. Food and music? We’re there,” Pollak said. “And Portland is a city where the residents are very open to other cultures.”

“I don’t think Greek culture is unique like this, but it does revolve around food and family,” Giatas said. “It’s so nice to have the Greater Portland community come here to be with us to experience our food, culture, music and hospitality.”

Stefos said for her, the Greek word “filoxenia” sums up the spirit of the annual festival.

“It quite literally means ‘a friend to strangers,’ and is sort of a Greek philosophy of hospitality – of opening your home and your heart to strangers and to make people feel included, valued and welcome,” she said.

“That spirit is really ingrained in Greek culture and gets passed on through the generations, and I think it’s one reason why a lot of us are so passionate about the Greek festival. We love to share bits of ourselves, our traditions, our church, and our hospitality with those around us.”

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