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Greece Celebrates Epiphany Under Covid Restrictions

greece epiphany covid
Greek Orthodox bishop at the Great Blessing of Waters on Theophany, releasing the cross off the Glenelg Jetty, South Australia, for one of the swimmers below to retrieve. Credit: Maggas/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY 3.0

Christian faithful in Greece and around the world celebrate the Feast of Epiphany on January 6.
For Orthodox Christians the event marks the baptism of the Lord in the Jordan River and is one of the greatest celebrations of the entire liturgical year.
However, this year, things will of course be quite a bit different as Greece and the rest of the world navigate the restrictions that have been put into place to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
The annual Blessing of the Waters, one of the most iconic celebrations associated with Epiphany, will not take place and the long services which always mark the Feast inside churches will not be allowed this year.
Most areas will not have the much-anticipated diving for the cross, which marks a rite of passage every year for Greek teens.

greece epiphany covid
The Adoration of the Magi” tapestry by Edward Burne-Jones (1904). Western Christians traditionally commemorate the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child on Epiphany. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The great feast of the Epiphany marks the end of the extended period of Christmas holidays in Greece.
Each year on January 6, hundreds of thousands of Greeks and visitors usually participate in the rich traditions that are observed in each and every city and town in the country, making it one of the most special holidays of the year.

What is Epiphany?

The feast day is one of the most important Christian celebrations of the entire year because it marks the commemoration of the revelation of God as Jesus Christ.
Epiphany is also known as Theophany, and both of these terms derive from the Greek words for “revelation” and the “revelation of God,” or ”Επιφάνεια” (epipháneia) and ”Θεοφάνεια” (Theopháneia).
This unique feast is celebrated by both the Eastern and Western Church, and millions of people around the world participate in liturgies, Masses, blessings of the waters and many other traditional events which take place on this day.
One exception to this rule, however, is the churches which continue to follow the Julian calendar. Most of these Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate the Feast of Epiphany on January 19th, rather than the sixth, as does the rest of Christianity.

The baptism of Christ in the Jordan

In the Orthodox Christian tradition, to which the Greek Orthodox Church also belongs, the feast of Epiphany is strongly associated with the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River.
According to archaeologists, Christians began celebrating Epiphany from as early as 200 AD in the Greek-speaking eastern parts of the Roman Empire, and these celebrations began as a commemoration of Jesus’ baptism.
However, Western European Christians have traditionally associated Epiphany with the visit of the three Magi to the newborn Jesus Christ.
For this reason, many parts of the West still call Epiphany ”The Small Christmas” up to this day.
However, both Churches commemorate the groundbreaking revelation of God to the world, either via the three Magi or Jesus’ later baptism as an adult by John the Baptist.

Epiphany in Greece, Cyprus and the Greek Orthodox communities of the world

greece epiphany covid
Credit: Twitter/Jennifer Hattam

In Greece, Cyprus and the Greek diaspora throughout the world, the feast of Epiphany is known by its English alternative term of Theophany. Many people most commonly also refer to it as ”Phόta,” which is Greek for “Lights.”
Greeks call this celebration Phόta because, according to their belief, this is the day that God enlightened the world with His wisdom.
Epiphany customs in Greece and Cyprus revolve around the Great Blessing of the Waters.
During these ceremonies, which are held on beaches, lakes and rivers, a cross is thrown into the water by a Greek Orthodox priest, and then boys and men compete to retrieve it so that they may have good luck throughout the year.
In the past, it was very common in Greece to hear children singing Epiphany carols the day before the Feast, a tradition similar to the singing of the Kalanta, or Christmas and New Year Day’s carols.
However, this particular tradition is now almost extinct, with a few exceptions in localities across Greece and Cyprus.
Of course, apart from the traditional blessing of the waters, many places in Greece, from small villages to large cities, observe their own, unique traditions, which are deeply rooted in ancient Greek or Byzantine practices.

Blessing of the Waters and diving for the Cross a little different in 2021

This year, traditions will look quite a bit different, with the clergy still allowed to bless the waters near where they live, but no crowds will be allowed to gather around them. In most areas, the traditional diving for the cross will not take place due to the Covid-19 restrictions.
One of the most iconic of all Epiphany events is the celebration in Tarpon Springs, Florida,  which ironically is celebrating its 115th anniversary in 2021. The grounds on which as many as 20,000 people normally congregate to watch teenage boys dive for a cross thrown by the Bishop will be closed this Wednesday.
However, a modified version of the celebration will still take place. Scaled down to involve only 55 divers, all aged 16-18, there will be no spectators whatsoever other than two family members of each young man. But the waters will indeed be blessed by the Bishop, as always, and the cross retrieved from the waters by one fortunate diver.
The old tradition, taking place in the town known for its many Greek sponge divers, is normally a gala, day-long affair.
A staple of Tarpon Springs’ winter events since 1906, it has in the past attracted more than 20,000 people to the Greek town.
This year, however, only two family members will be allowed to watch their sons vie for the cross.
The divers will also have to wear a mask leading up to the time they dive into the water — and they will be given new masks to don immediately after climbing out of the bayou.
The ceremonial procession which leads up to the throwing of the cross by the Bishop or Archbishop — as well as the Glendi Celebration afterward — are of course canceled this year. There will also be a limited number of parishioners allowed inside St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral for the Epiphany service itself.
Local officials also announced that police officers will also close off Tarpon Springs’ Craig Park to the public to keep spectators from gathering there to watch the cross dive.

Watch Tarpon Springs’ 2021 Blessing of the Waters and diving for cross online

Florida’s ABC Action News will stream the event live online via your favorite streaming device, including Roku, Amazon Fire TV, and Apple TV.
You can read more about the best-known traditions of Epiphany below in Greek Reporter’s story about the history of this great feast, here.

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