The Greek Festival of Epiphany, or ‘The Blessing of the Waters’, is held every year on January 6 throughout all of Greece. At midnight, the “twelve days” of Christmas officially come to an end. This day takes on a special meaning when a special ceremony of blessing of the waters is celebrated.
This is the special occasion when many daring young Greek men brave the chilly waters to dive for a cross after it has been blessed by a priest and thrown into the water. For his gallantry, the first man who recovers the cross is said to have good luck throughout the coming year. The day long festival also features the blessing of small boats and ships, and later on affords entertainment, music, dancing and food to all those present.
If you’re fortunate enough to serve in Crete during this time, you’ll be able to observe a priest hurling a large crucifix into the waters. Young men brave the cold and compete to retrieve it. These days, the cross is generally attached to a nice, safe long chain, just in case that year’s crop of divers is something less experienced.
After the diving, local fishermen bring their boats to be blessed by the priest.
What does all this have to do with Christmas? Orthodox belief says that it was the day of the baptism of Jesus, and that this is where the day’s association with water arises.
But the observance itself may pre-date Christianity. There was, in Roman times, what was said to be a ceremony that opened the season of navigation. However, as any Greek fisherman can tell you, whatever the date of the opening of the season of navigation really is, it definitely is not January 6th, when weather can be stormy and the waters are at their coldest.
The day is also said to be the date of a festival of emperor-worship, also dating from Roman times. Possibly that, with attendant offerings for the emperor, is the root of this ceremony. Or it may also reflect a survival of the custom of giving precious offerings to sea, river, and spring spirits to assure their benevolence or halt their interference. On Epiphany, the kallinkantzari, the malicious spirits who are said to be active during the twelve days of Christmas, are believed to be banished for the rest of the year.
Epiphany is also called the Phota or Fota, in reference to the day being a Feast of Light, and it is also the saint’s day for Agia Theofana.
While the biggest observance is at Piraeus, many islands and villages offer smaller versions of the event. It is definitely still a traditional holiday, performed by Greeks for themselves.