There may be 25 Orthodox Greek churches throughout the state and at least 20 Greek festivals from May through October, but St. George Greek Orthodox Church of Piscataway’s festival, which will take place Thursday, May 12, to Sunday, May 15, is a little different.
“It’s the ‘kefi’ that makes us different — the level of energy at the festival,” said Arete Bouhlas, publicity manager who has been involved in the festival for 37 years. “Some festivals say they end at 11 p.m., but they’re quiet by 9:30 p.m. By 12:30 a.m., we have to kick people out.”
By no means, however, is this St. George’s first go at this Greek staple. This year, one the largest and oldest Greek congregations in the state — having been founded in 1916 and now boasting 800 families — will be celebrating their 100th anniversary at the 43rd annual festival.
The state’s first Greek festival of the season, St. George is planning to attract 10,000 to 15,000 Greeks and non-Greeks to the festival and church grounds at 1101 River Road in Piscataway. This is a significant jump from the few thousand that attended over the three-day weekend when the festival began in 1973.
Although there are many reasons for the festival’s popularity, there is one that certainly stands, or tastes and smells, out — the food, all of which is homemade on the premises by church members, many from recipes that have been passed down through generations.
“As people have heard more about it, the numbers have increased,” said Bouhlas. “Now, people know that it’s always the weekend after Mother’s Day and they flock here in big groups.”
Some of the food items that will be available this year are mousaka, or Greek eggplant; pastitsio, or Greek-style baked macaroni; spanakopita, or spinach and cheese pie; baklava, or nut strudel; and galaktoboureko, or custard supreme. There also will be bar items.
“My favorite part of the festival is the food — the shish kabobs, the gyros, the traditional foods and the pastries,” said George Athanasopoulos, festival chair who has been involved for 10 years. “Everything is made right there and you can see how we make it.”
On any given evening, there are 75 to 100 church volunteers helping to cook the Greek food and run the festival. In total, about 500 people volunteer. Bouhlas said that everyone from the church community comes together, from 6-year-old children to 90-year-old women.
Church members do this at the festival to fundraise for cultural programming, youth programming, Greek language and religion classes, the traditional Greek folk dancing program, community involvement and, this year, to fund activities associated with the church’s 100th anniversary.
“It’s not very often that an organization gets to celebrate its 100th anniversary,” said Bouhlas.
Of course, food isn’t the only thing that brings Central Jerseyans in to celebrate Greek culture. They also head to the festival to listen to live Greek music and watch the folk dance performances from the church’s six dance groups.
Bouhlas said that her favorite part of the festival is the sense of community that exists in the church atmosphere. The dance performances are the favorite part of the festival for John Lyssikatos, church volunteer and former festival chair.
“The children dancing shows how dedicated the community is and how dedicated they are in continuing the traditions,” said Lyssikatos, who has been involved in the festival for 35 years. “There are 10-years-olds up to 17-year-olds who have been practicing for two to three months. To see our guests supporting them — it goes a long way.”
“Just like with family at holidays, there are some people that you may only see at festival time,” Bouhlas said. “But then when you see each other, it’s like you were never apart.”
If you go
What: St. George Greek Orthodox Church’s 43rd annual Greek Festival
Where: 1101 River Road, Piscataway
When: Thursday, May 12, from 4 to 10 p.m.; Friday, May 13, from 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.; Saturday, May 14, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 a.m.; and Sunday, May 15, from noon to 8 p.m.
Cost: Free Thursday, May 12; free Friday May 13 until 4 p.m.; otherwise, a $2 donation.
Traffic: Free parking and shuttle service is available at the church and from Rutgers Stadium. Please note that Sunday’s festival date will coincide with Rutgers’ commencement and traffic notices will be posted as they are available.