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Fayetteville’s Big Fat Greek & French Festival


by Melissa Goslin

A handful of rock stars go by a single name—Madonna, Sting, Pink, Beyoncé. These mononymous celebrities have achieved a rare, instantly-recognizable level of fame, even when their one name is reduced to a symbol (who can forget The Artist, Formerly Known as Prince?). But before music and movies ruled the pop culture world, there were rock stars of a different sort.

Fayetteville’s namesake was born Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette. By the time he toured America in 1824, he was known worldwide by a single moniker: Lafayette. Even with no Facebook page to announce his arrival, the streets were lined from the Cape Fear River to the Market House when he visited Fayetteville in March of 1825.  His extreme popularity sparked a rash of good old American capitalism, as local craftsman created souvenirs such as vases, lapel pins and snuff boxes to commemorate his appearance.  

So, what was it about Lafayette that made people show up in droves just to get a glance? Simply put, his rock star attitude. In addition to fighting in the American Revolutionary War, Lafayette advocated and supported human rights and national independence movements across the globe. Lafayette Society president, Hank Parfitt said, “There’s just something inherently likeable about Lafayette.”

“While you’re reading about other important figures in American history, you often come away admiring them. In the case of Lafayette, not only do you come away from the stories with admiration, but you also like him,” Parfitt said.

Parfitt pointed out that Fayetteville was the first city in the United States named for Lafayette, and it was the only named city in which Lafayette stopped during his tour. However, the reasons for studying and honoring him go much deeper than that.

“He was absolutely enthralled with the ideas of democracy and freedom,” Parfitt said.

Almost two hundred years later, the celebration continues thanks to the local Lafayette Society. This year, the ninth annual Lafayette Festival will be held in tandem with the Greek Festival held at the Hellenic Center of Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church. Not only do these two events provide plenty of options for a fun-filled weekend in Fayetteville, but they also showcase cultural differences Lafayette fought to protect. When Greece revolted against the Ottoman Empire in 1821, Lafayette saw many parallels to the American struggle and vigorously advocated for their independence. His words as well as his own story even inspired several Americans to travel to Greece and fight alongside them.

Celebrating Lafayette

On Friday, September 11, the Arias and Artifacts event at Methodist University officially kicks off the celebration of Lafayette with a collection of artifacts—including some of the merchandising from Lafayette’s American tour—in the Davis Library, followed by an evening of French music at Hensdale Chapel. According to Parfitt, this type of city-wide involvement between civic organizations has been the hallmark of the Lafayette celebration since its inception in 2007. 

Another such community event is the Festival of Yesteryear held by the Museum of the Cape Fear. Festivalgoers are taken back in time to the Revolutionary War era, with woodworking and open-fire cooking demonstrations as well as performances by Tryon Palace’s Fife and Drum Corps and the N.C. Highland Regiment historical re-enactors. Parents can also sneak in a history lesson for kids while they enjoy making tri-cornered hats, trying their hands at weaving and completing rebus puzzles.

Also on Saturday, the Lafayette Trail Tour guides groups back in time to retread Lafayette’s footsteps and learn about the city’s history. This year, the tour includes two new spots—the Phoenix Masonic Lodge and Cool Spring Tavern—plus will be lined with bronze markers purchased by the Lafayette Society. 

“It’s as good as any tour I’ve been on in Philadelphia, Charleston or a host of other cities,” Parfitt said.

Sidewalk sales, the Army Ground Forces Dixieland Jazz Band and a tournament at All American Fencing Academy will keep Downtown Fayetteville buzzing all day. Saturday night, the fun continues with a French wine and cheese tasting at the Wine Cafe before Lloyd Kramer, Professor of History and Faculty Director of the Program in the Humanities and Human Values at UNC Chapel Hill, brings Lafayette to life at the Market House. His talk, “Lafayette, National Revolutions, and Greece in the 1820’s” promises to be an entertaining look into the man behind the celebration.

“Everywhere Lafayette went, he affirmed the American national identity,” Kramer said.

He was loyal, idealistic and generous—almost to a fault. In fact, when the Continental Congress could not pay his way to America, Lafayette commissioned his own ship and paid for the voyage. He also gave coin to his soldiers and roused financial support from other members of the French nobility. He was fully devoted to the American cause. Only nineteen when he joined the war effort, Lafayette was given what was supposed to be an honorary title of Major General. However, the man Franklin and Washington initially saw as a wealthy and privileged young man quickly became a great field general.

Of all Lafayette’s qualities, Kramer most admires his ability to adapt quickly  and effectively to different culture and social mores.

“Most people can’t do that,” Kramer said. “Much less do it well.”

Going Greek

During his visit to America, Lafayette praised the Greek war for independence.

“He believed that independent national states protected basic human rights better than empires, so he saw the Greek struggle against the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s as part of a broader political movement that he had first encountered in the earlier American struggle against the British Empire.” Kramer said. 

By speaking out during his tour, Lafayette forged a bond between American and Greek cultures.

“His advocacy for the Greek cause also inspired a few Americans to join the revolutionary struggle in Greece itself and thus become new ‘Lafayettes’ in a different place,” Kramer said.

In that same spirit, the Greek Festival held at Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church has been an integral part of the local community for over fifty years. Pete Skenteris, Haymont Grill owner, has been on the board that entire time.

“It gets better every year,” Skenteris said. 

Although Skenteris is happy to pass the torch to a new generation of organizers, co-chairs Vince Higgins and Dr. John Poulos still rely on Skenteris to provide a sense of history, both for the festival and the greater Greek culture.

“The festival shows off Greek food and culture, but it also demonstrates Greek family values,” Skenteris said. He loves it when people come to the festival for the food, but end up wandering over to the church to look at the iconography and asking questions.

In addition to Greek food—including everything from gyros to pastries—the festival will have live entertainment, vendors and a slew of kids’ activities. Local fire and police departments will provide expos and demos while also promoting their community campaigns. 

“There’s truly something for everyone to do, not to mention plenty of beer, wine and dancing. Everyone should come over, get a bite to eat, and enjoy the entertainment,” Skenteris said.

On having two incredible events on the same weekend, Lafayette Festival volunteer Mike Lynch, boasted, “We are a very diversified community and it brings two great events to the same weekend and we can all enjoy the resources. It’s awesome!