What is Epiphany all about?
The word Epiphany comes from the Greek word epiphania, which means divine manifestation, and it references a visit of a god to earth.
January 6th sees Greece celebrating Epiphany. Where we all get to witness men and boys (sometimes girls now too) leap into ice-cold January water to be the first to retrieve the cross thrown by the Orthodox priest.
The one who successfully gets the cross will have good fortune and health for the year. There is food and drink provided free by the villagers and everyone enjoys the blessing of the waters.
In many parts of Greece, there will be processions from the church to the waters. Here in the southern part of Rhodes, everyone simply rushes into their cars to get to the beach and get a good spot to watch the action.
Lots of people are there filming the fun with their mobile phones. While young men and boys stand around getting very cold, waiting for the priest to finish talking and throw the cross.
Epiphany officially closes the twelve days of Christmas that started on Christmas Eve, it’s also time to have a BBQ, clear out the dusty decorations and for some have an early tot of Metaxa in their morning coffee. The 7th is officially the day the Christmas decorations come down in Greece.
My first Epiphany – Pylona
Here on the island, I’ve witnessed a few different Epiphany cross throwing events. The first was for Pylona, the village we live in, which is done on the beach at Vlicha. My first Epiphany I had no idea what to expect. Most of the village turned out, there was free mountain tea, coffee and shots of Metaxa. There was also a big saucepan of vegetable soup, wedges of village bread and lots of cake. There was a bitterly cold wind but the day was sunny.
The priest arrived and walked along the rocks at the edge of the beach, said a few words we couldn’t hear from the surfs edge and then threw in the cross. Two young men were waiting and rushed in to get the cross. Unfortunately, neither of them could find it. Over the next half hour or so a selection of older men in suits found themselves having to get out of their suits and jump into the icy water. Apparently, they are not allowed to leave until the cross is found. There was a call put out for snorkelling gear, the cross was found and one of the original two brought it out of the water. They must have been frozen. My photos from then have now been lost, but they are mainly of people standing around wondering when it will all end.
Our second January we had a visitor here so we headed down to Lindos. Thinking it might be a little different. We headed to the main beach on another very cold and windy morning. The sun was shining but we were still all wrapped up warm.
Slightly different from the previous year, the priest and congregation walked down from the church in the village to the beach and then he got onto a boat provided by the nearby special forces base.
On the beach were lined up a group of young army recruits all looking very chilly, the cross was thrown from the boat off shore. In calm waters, the men raced and retrieved the cross without any fuss at all.
Epiphany Lardos style
The following year, 2016, I headed to see how the village of Lardos performs the cross throwing ceremony. A really large crowd congregated at the concrete pier on another cool sunny January morning. Lots of young men were ready and the cross was thrown. The cross this time floated and was retrieved without incident, which was just as well as it is very deep there.
Last year my husband was here for the first time, we drove around to see where would be best to watch the throwing from but a storm had blown in and no-one was going to risk life for the blessing. Apparently, they blessed the water in the font instead.
Epiphany at Massari and Malona
This year I decided to try somewhere new and headed to the beaches for the villages of Massari and Malona. I arrived at the Massari beach a little early as the women were setting the table of food and drinks. Everyone who came brought more cakes and the mountain tea was wonderful.
I’d heard that here it was only children that dive for the cross and was looking forward to seeing things done a little differently. There was a gift of a crucifix for each child and the whole village seemed to be there. Though it seems there was a change of plan from other years as a young man stepped forward as the only one to be swimming this year.
I have heard that a new ruling has been brought out requiring the swimmers to have some sort of certificate of fitness to swim, maybe that changed things for Massari this year?
Once the cross had been retrieved from Massari beach I headed around to Haraki harbour along with many others. A crowd was already gathered along the harbour wall and 4 young men were ready to go as the priest was already reciting when I arrived.
This time the cross was attached to a rope, apparently, it had gone in missing into the surf in a previous year. The man in dark blue shorts got to the cross first and everyone then headed off for another year.
This year was also the warmest I’ve known it since we’ve been here and after a few hours standing around in the sun followed by coffee on the harbour in Haraki, I’m looking a little pink around the edges.
Epiphany tends to also include a BBQ in the villages around us, and that’s what we’ve always done do. A good friend in the village has his birthday and name day on January 6th so that’s where I’m heading off to now.
Blessing the waters isn’t just about luck for one young man, it’s also said to cleanse the world of goblins who cause mischief. Called Kalikantzaroi they are said to torment God-fearing Christians throughout Christmas. Any children who go ringing their triangles and singing from house to house today are also supposed to be scaring away the goblins.