Tarpon Springs Epiphany Celebrations Scaled Down Due to Pandemic

Tarpon Springs
Christian Chrysakis finds the Cross in the water at the 112th Annual Epiphany Celebration in Tarpon Springs, Florida.

Tarpon Springs, Florida’s Epiphany celebrations, always one of the most popular events during the winter in the greater area, will look a little different this year due to the pandemic. As with everything else this past year, the celebrations for the great feast of Epiphany, or Theophany, will be scaled down.

But there will indeed be a blessing of the waters by the Archbishop of the Americas, Elpidophoros, and the cross will be found by a fortunate young man in the waters of the bayou on this, the 115th anniversary of the first such celebration in Tarpon Springs.

This year, no spectators other than two from the family of each diver will be allowed to watch the ceremony for the blessing of the waters and the cross dive. In the past, as many as 25,000 people had gathered there to take part in the great feast, which is traditionally the end of the Christmas season.

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

The grounds on which throngs of people normally congregate to watch teenage boys dive for a cross thrown by the Bishop will be closed this Wednesday.

The modified version of the celebration will include a scaled down complement of divers, numbering 55 this year, all aged 16-18. The old tradition, taking place in the town famous for its many Greek sponge divers, is normally a gala, day-long affair.

St. Nicholas’ Greek Orthodox Cathedral will be open to ticketed parishioners only. Up to 800 parishioners with tickets will be given access to the Liturgy and festivities, according to Tarpon Springs police chief Robert Kochen.

The four-hour Liturgy which marks the end of the Christmas season will unfortunately only be able to be attended by 50 percent of its usual number of Epiphany parishioners.

The teenage divers, their family members, church officials and parishioners with tickets will be the only people allowed to take part or watch the festivities this year.

Tarpon Springs Police Chief Robert Kochen told the local press “We don’t want a super-spreader event. We meet with the church officials all the time and I believe we have a good agreement that this will be a nice event in a really difficult time.”

A staple of Tarpon Springs’ winter events since 1906, it has in the past attracted more than 25,000 people to the historically Greek town.

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.

Archbishop Elpidophoros and PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis in Saint Nicholas’ Church of Tarpon Springs, Florida. Credit: AMNA

Last year, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis attended the gala festivities, along with  Archbishop Elpidophoros, who officiated at the Liturgy and the Blessing of the Waters. This was the first time in history that a Greek prime minster had attended the Epiphany celebrations in Tarpon Springs.

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

The festivities will be live-streamed from the website of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Florida’s ABC Action News will also stream the event live online via your favorite streaming device, including Roku, Amazon Fire TV, and Apple TV.

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 Jesus Christ as the son of God.

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.

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

A Greek Orthodox bishop throwing a cross off Glenelg Jetty, South Australia, for one of the swimmers below to retrieve. This time-honored tradition is part of the ceremony called the Great Blessing of the Waters on Theophany every year. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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.

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.