In Greece, observation of the Epiphany, commemorating the baptism of Jesus Christ by St. John the Baptist in the River Jordan, was historically celebrated with spiritual emotion and a long procession.
Following tradition, the Greek community of Tarpon Springs marks the January feast each year with a celebration that now draws 10,000 to 20,000 devoted Greeks and other visitors to the city on Florida’s west coast, home to the highest percentage of Greek Americans in the United States.
Tarpon Springs’ celebration is one of the largest in the western hemisphere.
On Jan. 6, the centerpiece event is held – a cross dive that involves more than 40 local boys competing to find a white cross thrown into the water by the Archbishop. The dive is a long-anticipated rite of passage into manhood for Greek boys, ages 16 to 18.
As bells toll early in the morning, streets close for the traditional, solemn procession from St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral to the Spring Bayou, led by a young girl chosen as the “dove bearer,” along with police on motorcycles, the U.S. Coast Guard and alter boys in blue and white holding religious banners.
Local students in costumes carry American and Greek flags. High schools bands, scout troops, Greek clubs and societies, priests and deacons, politicians and faithful parishioners all participate in the parade.
Surrounded by teenage boys wearing swim trunks and white T-shirts in small rowboats and dinghies, Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, blesses the waters from a sponge boat as the dove bearer releases a white dove symbolizing the Holy Ghost and peace. The Archbishop then throws a large cross into the water, triggering a frenzied competition among the divers, who swim, wrestle and churn the waters in search of the cross.
One recent year’s battle was so heated that photos and videos on social networking sites were used to determine the victor.
The diver who retrieves the cross is carried on the shoulders by the other boys back to the church, where he is blessed by the Archbishop. Legend has it that whoever retrieves the cross will have a year of good fortune.
For more information, visit St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral's website at www.epiphanycity.org or call 727-937-3540.