In the old days, an ethnic festival was a neighborhood party, an impromptu gathering of people bound by common culture to play a few games, sing the songs of the old country and sample food from the best neighborhood cooks.
Now ethnic festivals are glittering events that draw thousands who pay admission fees to see world-class performers and enjoy mountains of food. But some where there's still room for the simpler gatherings, too.
Baltimore's Showcase of Nations ethnic festival season opens today with the 19th annual Lithuanian Festival. John Maskavich, the festival's chairman, says the celebration has traveled a long way to Festival Hall from Charles Plaza, its original site. Mr. Maskavich prefers Festival Hall to an outdoor location because an indoor, air-conditioned space protects fair-goers from bad weather. Festival Hall also offers plenty of paid parking.
Of course, the festival is taking place a few miles from the original Lithuanian immigrant neighborhood in Hollins market. Yet Mr. Maskavich will argue the festival has not assimilated into a generic American extravaganza, but has stayed proudly Lithuanian.
"We are strictly ethnic," he says. "We have nothing that is not Lithuanian in origin. To have a booth, you must be Lithuanian, of Lithuanian descent or married to a Lithuanian." Participants in this weekend's festival include a Lithuanian dance troupe from Canada, Lithuanian-American merchants flying in from California and New York, and a visiting woman from Lithuania offering home-baked pastries.
Attending the festival will be several thousand Lithuanian-Americans from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. "Their states have [festivals], but the comments we get is that they are nothing like what we have here in Baltimore," adds Mr. Maskavich.
Zoe Perdikakis has found using St. Nicholas Church for the Showcase of Nations Greek Folk Festival keeps things tight in the neighborhood. The 18-year-old festival has moved from Rash Field to Oldham Street to its present location on South Ponca Street.
"The neighborhood is important," says Mrs. Perdikakis, who likes the fact that many Greek-Americans, young and old, can walk to the festival. The festival's profits stay at St. Nicholas Church, which holds programs such as Greek school for the youngest generation.
The city provides equipment, tables, booths, an electrician and other necessities. Neighborhood volunteers do the cooking. Like the other Showcase of Nation festivals, the Greek group pays only 10 percent of the festival's total cost, and is not responsible for paying security deposits. The cost of trolley service to bring festival-goers from the Inner Harbor is being paid by a private donor in the Greek community.
Because the event is held in a private location, Mrs. Perdikakis does not need to charge admission to the bash that attracts 30,000 to 40,000 visitors, who buy plenty of food and spend money on rides and Greek products. While many Americans come during the day, more Greeks come in the evening to dine and dance for $5 in the church.
The 13 festivals currently in the Showcase of Nations are examples of groups with stamina and good organization. In past years, there have been more festivals -- French, Scandinavian, Norse, Celtic and Caribbean -- but all have fallen by the wayside.
Bill Gilmore, acting director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion, says that originally the city paid all expenses for the festivals. Fiscal restrictions, however, have led the city to ask Showcase of Nations festivals to pay 10 percent of expenses for the last three years.
The city encourages most Showcase of Nations participants to hold their festivals at Festival Hall, Druid Hill Park, Carroll Park or in Hopkins Plaza.
"There are different reasons why the festivals are in these locations," says Mr. Gilmore. "Some of it is the cost. There are restrictions on other locations for a variety of reasons, some of them environmental."
(Organizers of the Polish Festival, which will take place in Patterson Park, must pay a security deposit to the city's Recreation and Parks department because the site is not in the standard Showcase of Nations lineup.)
Like the Poles wanting a festival in their neighborhood park, other ethnic groups have such a diversity of institutions and neighborhoods they feel they need more than one fete. Some ethnic groups have an official Showcase of Nations festival plus other church or neighborhood-based festivals. Two Greek Orthodox churches, St. Demetrius and the Annunciation, hold their own festivals in the autumn. And while the Showcase of Nations Hispanic Festival takes place in Hopkins Plaza this August, a Latino Festival sponsored by EBLO, the East Baltimore Latino Organization, swings into action this weekend in Fells Point.
Jose Ruiz, festival director, says that because Baltimore's Hispanic community of 20,000 is concentrated in East Baltimore, EBLO threw its first celebration there 12 years ago.