The South isn’t known as a hotbed of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, but people in the Savannah area do have some opportunities to interact with that culture.
Everyone knows about the popular Savannah Greek Festival, which just celebrated its 60th anniversary last weekend and is a project of St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church.
But out in Rincon you’ll find the charming little St. Mary Magdalene Orthodox Church, and they have a festival of their own: The Russian Festival, now in its fourth year.
“We want to expose people to eastern European culture, and we’ll be doing it through food, traditional dancing, and traditional dress,” says festival volunteer Sue Upchurch. “We’ll have a lot of Russian music that isn’t liturgical. There will also be a little play called The Turnip, which is a children’s folk tale.”
Dancers from The Ballet School of Savannah will also perform some traditional folk dances from Orthodox countries.
The food at “Baba’s Kitchen” in the fellowship hall ranges from vernoki — the Russian version of the Polish perogi — to kielbasa to beef–filled cabbage rolls and tasty cookies.
Upchurch stresses that, like the Greek Festival, the Russian Festival is not a religious event per se, though there is plenty of opportunity to find out more about the Orthodox faith.
“St. Mary Magdalene is part of the Orthodox Church of America, which broke off from the Russian Orthodox church and has autonomy in the U.S.,” she explains. “Our congregation is primarily Russian ethnically, but we do have some Romanian and Lithuanian families as well.”
Interestingly, Upchurch says the Russian experience is somewhat unique in that immigrants — many of whom grew up in the nominally atheist Soviet Union where the church was essentially outlawed — don’t drive church attendance in the U.S.
“We don’t really get that many immigrants here because the church didn’t play a major role in their upbringing. It was underground,” she says. “In communist Russia young people didn’t grow up going to church — it was the grandparents who went.”
So why make the drive from Savannah all the way to Rincon for the Russian Festival?
“To experience a little bit of old world Russia and for a fabulous cultural experience you won’t see elsewhere,” she says. “There will be fun, food, and dancing at a real family event. There’s something for everybody.”
Fourth Annual Russian Festival
What: Fun, food, gift shop, minstrels, folk music, dancers, storytelling, children’s activities
When: Sat. Oct. 22, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Where: St. Mary Magdalene Orthodox Church, 1625 Fort Howard Road, Rincon
Cost: $2 adults, military and children under 12 free.