Beyond its Cycladic island charm, natural beauty and historic monuments, Sifnos is graced with yet another advantage, possibly the most important one: its ability to bring together all conflicting elements introduced over time and create out of them a renewed image. Its profile is that of a cosmopolitan island living firmly in the present yet keeping alive its customs and traditions. In this manner, the spare lines in homes and the Venetian loggias – with rooms opening to the garden – exist together next to richly decorated neoclassical houses and boutique hotels, just as young and old alike, local residents and holiday makers share fully in the fun at the religious feasts taking place at some of the hundreds of chapels on the island.
Opportunities for this are plentiful, as on the 77-square-kilometre surface area of Sifnos there are 235 chapels – so many reasons to celebrate, as every eve on a saint’s name day, tradition holds that a feast must be held in his or her honour. Sifnos even has a corps of volunteers handling just that, the “panigyrades” (feast people). They take care of whitewashing and decorating a church, collecting the necessary supplies, assigning the musicians and taking care of cooking. A panigyras is bestowed the honour of taking care of the saint’s icon, which he or she keeps at home for a full year before returning it to the church the day of the feast.
On the saint’s day, the rituals include the return of the icon, chanting during the vespers as attendees share in the devout atmosphere, followed by the “trapeza agapes” (table of agape) a sharing of a meal in fellowship with others and in honour of the saint. Eating local dishes and live music – including a violin and a lute, also known as “takimi” locally – are accompanied by improvised quatrains, dancing and overall an expression of gaiety.
The islanders’ ability to combine things is evident in the details here as well, as the Sifniot traditions of antiquity survive today in the creative cuisine, prepared in historically crafted clay pots and connecting two historic traditions, gastronomy and ceramics production. Both play a central role in the religious tradition of feasts.
At the “trapeza agapes” set out after the vesper liturgy is complete, volunteers spoon out the traditional chick pea soup (revythada) of Sifnos, which has spent hours cooking under low fire in a covered clay pot (skepastaria), along with lamb in red sauce (arnaki kokkinisto) accompanied by pasta or potatoes, salads and plenty of local wine. All of these have been prepared at the local church’s elevated fireplace, known as “panostria”. The food and wine will keep coming until all people present are fed. They, in turn, join voices to wish the best to the preparer (“Na zissi o panigyras”). Last but not least there is dancing, which can go on until next morning.
Sharing a meal and participating in the festivities of a panigyri is an integral part of experiencing the island. Some of the best-known feasts include the following:
- Panagia Chryssopigi (Virgin of the Golden Source), a movable feast taking place in May or June, depending on Ascension Day. Festivities last three days to honour the protrectress of the island.
- Profitis Elias (Prophet Elijah), celebrated on July 19 at many churches on the island, with the best-known one being Ai-Nilias o Apsilos (St. Elijah the High One, after the Greek custom of building this saint’s churches on mountain tops).
- Ai-Yiannis (St. John) on August 28 in the towns of Choni, Mavro Chorio and Siderou, and a morning feast at Faros.
- Agios Symeon (St. Simon) on August 31, on the mountain facing Kamares and at the Pantokrator (All Mighty) church on the road to Platys Gialos.
- Taxiarchis (archangel) on September 5 at Vathy.
- Ai-Sostis (St. Sozon) on September 6 at Metalleia (the mines)