Many villages have churches dedicated to the same saints, but only a few of them can claim a particular saint as a patron. The Agios Ioannis church was one of them. Since the feast’s celebrations can be viewed as a celebration of the village itself, its people and its hospitality, it is important to draw as many as possible to its feast day. The aspect of the saint of the Agios Ioannis church as the wonderworker was stressed. That many of these pilgrims were in search of a cure is testified to by the thick chains of ex-votos festooned over the icons of the church.
In pre-war days the 8th of May – the village saint’s feast day – was claimed to have drawn up to 3000 pilgrims on occasion, from all over west Crete. They came from all the villages of Sfakia, from neighbouring eparchies, even crossing, according to village informants, the Lefka Ori in some numbers by a most difficult route on foot. The feast would last for three days and three nights. The ruined building by the church was earlier used to feed and shelter the guests, and the dancing took place on a flat terrace within the churchyard walls.
The feast in the late 70’s, though lively, was only a pale shadow of its former self. In 1979 and in 1980, about 100 people, including almost every villager, were in attendance. The others were mostly from Aradena and Anopolis, with a few relatives returned to visit from America and parts of Greece, together with an occasional tourist.
The celebration of the feast of Agios Ioannis started in the morning of the 8th of May with a church service. Some visitors arrived the day before and stayed overnight while those coming from the nearest villages walked to Agios Ioannis in the morning and returned home after the church ceremony.
Both women and men would dress up for the eight of May. Some of the men dressed in suits, but the grown men of Agios Ioannis put on their traditional best: black pants, black shirts, black boots and, in many cases, the mandila (cloth to wrap around the head). The mandila was normally only used by the older men, but the younger used it when they dressed up for a party. I walked the path to the church in high heeled shoes, but most of the women had learned to carry their shoes in a bag and change by the church.
After the church service everyone gathered outside the church for conversation, some meat, cheese and bread, and a glass of wine. The meat came from goats that belonged to the church and were only slaughtered for this occasion. Earlier the church also had its own beehives.
In the middle of the day everybody returned to the village and the visiting round started. Ideally, every household should lay out a big meal. In practice, some of the families consisting of two older people were not visited. In the other households women spent hours preparing an enormous meal that would consisted of meat, cheese, vegetables, honey, fish, bread, cakes and several other dishes in addition to large quantities of wine. The tables were stacked with food and the women kept on bringing more while the host made sure nobody had an empty glass. This repeated itself in every household.
The meals were frequently interrupted by songs, especially rizitika and mantinades which are the traditional Cretan songs. In Agios Ioannis they were always sung unaccompanied. One man started by singing a line. The other men would answer him and repeat part of his line. This was repeated many times and continued until a toast was made and more wine was drunk.
Gunfire was also an important part of any celebration in the village – both outside the house and inside. I was sitting at the table in one of the houses while people were shooting over our heads and through the window pane. The woman of the house just ruefully smiled and shrugged. It was just part of the celebration.
And then there was dancing….
By the end of the day eight or nine households had given a meal for the villagers and the guests. Needless to say, nobody could eat their way through all these meals, and in some cases people left the house without hardly touching the food on the table, and few people would visit every house. But since there was a certain prestige involved in having many guests and being able to serve a large meal, the host would try to round up as many people as possible. The last party continued until well after midnight, when small groups of people started heading for their houses.