Lietuviu Namai: the “Lithuanian home,” is a cherished notion for a people who for many years endured occupation and displacement.
For those of Lithuanian descent living in Philadelphia and surrounding areas, Port Richmond has become that home.
The annual Lithuanian Festival and Craft Fair, now in its 32nd year, is the largest event that brings the Philadelphia Lithuanian-American community back to Port Richmond to celebrate in its heritage. The weekend event, a mélange of Lithuanian culture, is the biggest fundraiser for the Lithuanian Music Hall, where it is held.
For two days, Nov. 6 and 7, fairgoers enjoyed traditional music, dancing and singing, while vendors offered the chance for guests to stock up on Christmas goodies, amber jewelry and native foods. There was a Krupnikas (Lithuanian mead) making contest, a wide selection of Lithuanian beers and the continually praised Lithuanian potato pancakes.
“It’s a way for everyone to come together and share in some culture and have some fun and come back to the neighborhood, because we’re always based out here in Port Richmond,” said Lisa Blanco, the venue’s manager and events coordinator.
It was a family affair for Alex Cox, a member of the Zilvinas folk dance group that performed during the fair. Cox said he and his family began to embrace and participate in traditional Lithuanian events and activities when his wife, an accordion player who also performed at the fair, began to learn more about her Lithuanian heritage.
Cox is of Anglo-Saxon and Scot-Irish decent, but he said delving into the history and customs of Lithuanian life sparked a personal appreciation for the country and its people.
“I love the music and the love of nature found in the culture and just basic family values,” he said. “I’ve become a part of this community … it’s like I inherited a whole extended family in the Philadelphia area.”
For 10 years, Terese Gecys has sold donated items for Child’s Gate to Learning at the fair, raising money for at risk children in after school programs in Lithuania.
Planning not to sell for this year’s fair, Gecys said she decided to participate after encouragement from the community and as more and more donations came in, she had enough to sell by the weekend.
According to the census bureau, there are 712,165 people of Lithuanian decent living in the United States. They are an inter-generational representation of three waves of emigration to this country. The first was in the later 1800s and early 1900s after a country-wide famine and the eventual industrialization boom. The next influx was after the Second World War when many Lithuanians became displaced and more recently in the 1990s when Lithuania reestablished its independence from the Soviet Union.
“It gave people a chance to move back and forth and move here and hopefully a better life for themselves,” said Blanco, whose mother is Lithuanian.
“[F]or the folks who have come over here in the last [few] years, [the Lithuanian fair is] a chance for them to have more of a place for their kids to see all different aspects of the culture as opposed to little bits here and there,” she added.
The 102-year-old Lithuanian Music Hall, along with Lithuanian churches and various heritage enrichment groups, serves as crucial part of the center of the Lithuanian-American community in the Philadelphia area, especially because that community has spread over the last few years.
“Very few people of Lithuanian decent live in Port Richmond anymore,” said Gecys, who came to the United States in 1949 under the 1948 Displaced Persons Act.
“As people have gotten older it’s been a little more difficult,” said Blanco. “They can’t quite get here or they’ve moved out of the area so it’s not as easy a walking distance,” said Blanco.
However, Blanco added, “Almost everybody knows, first weekend of November [to] come to the hall,” she said.
Despite the greater distances between them, Blanco said there is always a sense of unity and togetherness. She said her grandmother would often cook for the hall’s “Social Sundays,” an after church meet up gathering where the community would eat, talk, listen and dance to music.
Even now, Blanco said that tradition carries on. “We always have a lot of regulars who come Sunday after church,” she said.
Keeping traditions alive is very important, Blanco added, something the fair and the Lithuanian Music Hall continue to do. “Passing along who we are and where we came from and what makes us different from other folks and of course what things make us the same, that’s always nice,” she said.