(I wrote and photographed this a few year back; I doubt that I could do it better today…)
Despite the usually bitter cold of the January morning, there are always brave young men, different each year, who dive to retrieve the cross the third and final time the priest casts it into the sea…
Epiphany (January 6), or Day of the Light –ton Photon in Greek— is an important religious and cultural celebration that marks the end of the holiday season. Up until the 4th century A.D. Epiphany was considered the first day of the year, observed as a three-day commemoration of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. People believed that on the eve of the 6th the skies open, granting the prayers of the devout.
Some anthropologists link Epiphany with the ancient Athenian ceremony of plynterion, the cleansing of the goddess Athena’s statue. During that ceremony, she was taken to the seaside in Faliron to be washed in the sea, thereby renewing her mythical powers. Similarly, as the anthropologists have noted, the church icons are often washed prior to the Epiphany celebration.
Nearly 2000 years ago the first Christians celebrated with long street processions, white candles in hand (a tradition modern Greeks preserve during the Resurrection ceremony, on Easter), hence the term Epiphany, the Day of the Light. Jesus intrinsically blessed the water by his immersion in it, and each year Greek Orthodox priests perform a ritual, casting the cross into the water, replenishing Jesus’ blessing in the water and on the community, as well.
All over Greece different forms of fried pastry are prepared in celebration: dilpes, pastry squares or ribbons, like the spectacular kserotigana of Crete, and loukoumades, dough puffs similar to Italian zepolli; photopites, the spicy-sweet fritters of Amorgos are the most interesting of the kind.
In southern Peloponnese the wonderful lalangia are made with a yeasted dough of flour, orange juice, and olive oil, scented with cinnamon and cloves. And because I prefer savory to sweet fried dough, I include the recipe for tiganopites, the crunchy pancakes from Samos island that are served sprinkled with spicy cheese.
A few years ago I decided to brave the cold and document the colorful ceremony at the port of Kea (see pictures). Similar ceremonies take place on all seaside cities and villages, as the priests bless the waters, throwing a cross, tethered by a ribbon, into the sea three times. Despite the usually bitter cold of the January morning, there are always brave young men who dive to retrieve the cross the third and final time the priest casts it into the sea.
The person who finds and returns the cross is considered particularly blessed and lucky. In the old days, money was collected by the people who attended the ceremony and given as an early reward, and encouragement, to the diver who would bring back the cross. I found, though, that the most difficult part for the patient, shivering participants, as they awaited the moment to retrieve the cross from the sea, must have been the seemingly interminable ceremony of bible readings and psalms. Finally, the moment arrived, and a deafening cacophony of church bells and boat sirens filled the air as one of the swimmers came up with the cross in his hand, the long, cold wait fully worthwhile.
Similar ceremonies take place at rivers, lakes, and even reservoirs, as is the case in central Athens, where the priest blesses the reservoir at Dexameni, in Kolonaki. According to old traditions, on this day the homes were sprinkled with holy water brought from the church in order to exorcise the kalikantzari— the little fairy-tale creatures that have supposedly pestered people during the dark winter nights, who need to be sent back to Hades where they belong. Fields, vineyards, the household animals, and of course the people are also sprinkled with holy water, either after the ceremony, or when the priests make personal visits to the homes of believers.