Pandemic restrictions cancelled or postponed many planned events but the organizations behind them are emerging stronger
It was to be a momentous occasion. The Halifax Lebanese Festival was set to be held for the 20th time, but just like for a lot of other cultural festivals, COVID-19 got in the way, forcing the cancellation.
“It was disappointing for all of us. We have many volunteers and many people get engaged in this. This event was almost like a celebration for everybody,” says Eli Hage, chair of the board at Saint Antonios Church in Halifax, which puts on the festival.
One year later, COVID-19 remains. With a vaccination campaign underway that aims to soon return society to pre-COVID life, cultural festivals have adapted by offering activities online, serving up take-out, and holding in-person gatherings that adhere to public health guidelines. These changes are a short-term bridge to the day people will gather once again.
Unfortunately for the Halifax Lebanese Festival, in part due to timing, it was also cancelled for 2021. Hage says planning for the July event usually begins in January or February, and things were just too uncertain at the time to have the festival resume. However, Hage is optimistic about the festival’s future.
“We’d like to have some normalcy in our life again for the festival—and everything else—and I think we see light at the end of this tunnel,” he says.
One cultural festival that managed to hold its 2020 event in the COVID world is Francofest, a celebration of Acadian, francophone, and francophile groups in the Halifax Regional Municipality. Camille Lucas, the festival’s administrative services co-ordinator, says it was lucky to offer limited in-person activities, virtual activities, and hybrid ones for the 2020 festival.
“COVID definitely changed our programming a lot of times, and we were still not sure of the final program until a few weeks before the festival,” she wrote in an email to My Halifax Experience.
The 2020 festival was held in November, as opposed to its usual October date.
One positive is because of COVID-related travel restrictions, Francofest became more local. “We had to stay very flexible, and one of the advantages is that we were able to work with local artists/businesses, while we usually work with artists from all over Canada,” Lucas says.
The plans for the 2021 event are to return to an October date, Lucas says. As well, Francofest is aiming to offer three options for events: in-person, virtual, and hybrid. Even with the modified programming, Lucas says it’s not the same experience.
“Even if we have the chance to offer in-person events, we miss the networking, meeting, experience-sharing that we usually have with our participants,” Lucas says.
Similarly, the Italian Weekend festival in Halifax managed to put on a 2020 edition, but in a modified format. Where past events showcased culture, art, cuisine, language, music, history, and travel, the September 2020 incarnation had one focus: food.
“Because of COVID, we could not open the facility to all our supporters and guests,” Roberto Sani, president of the Italian Canadian Cultural Association of Nova Scotia, wrote in an email. “The only activity we could carry out was preparing and serving food in a take-away format.”
He says the plan for the Sept. 10-12, 2021 event is much the same. However, if public health restrictions are eased, Sani envisions opening up part of the exterior courtyard so a limited number of people can enjoy their meals outdoors.
“Not being able to interact and have the human contact with patrons is very hard to accept, especially for Italians that are notoriously gregarious and always ready for a party,” he says.
It’s a similar situation for Halifax’s Greek Fest. Traditionally held during the second weekend in June, the festival is famous for its food, dancing, live music, church tours, market, and activities for kids. While an in-person gathering was out of the question for 2020, the festival adapted with Greek Fest To-Go!, offering Greek food for take-out over three weekends last August.
“We’ve had Greek Fest patrons asking us for take-out for 30 years,” says Bessy Nikolaou, chair of Greek Fest’s organizing committee. Another Greek Fest To-Go! was held in December and focused on Greek desserts, including Christmas specialities such as kourambiedes and melomakarona.
Nikolaou says Greek Fest is an important community fundraiser and helps pay for some of the utility costs at the St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church and Community Centre, and some of the operational costs for the Saint George’s Greek School, which provides language and culture education to Greek kids in Grades 1 to 6.
Nikolaou says before the third wave of the pandemic hit Nova Scotia, there was hope a hybrid gathering would be doable for June 2021. However, the third wave of the pandemic scuttled plans for a hybrid gathering, so the fourth Greek Fest To-Go! was held June 25-27.
“I hope we can inspire other communities to find ways to showcase their culture and their food in these times as well,” Nikolaou says. “I think Haligonians in general love it, I think we love the cultural diversity of this city and the opportunity to be part of it.”