While the holiday season in much of the rest of the world comes to a gentle close after New Year’s Day, our holiday season in Greece extends a few more days to end with a glorious splash – literally. The twelve days of Christmas (remember the carol of the same name – with the pear-tree perching partridges and leaping lords?) reach their bracing finale on the sixth of January.
Epiphany is a holiday in name only in the land where I grew up, celebrated only by the most devout. But Greek Epiphany is another matter altogether, a holiday of contagious joy. Where the other big holidays of the year – namely Christmas and Easter – have their share of secular excesses, “ta fota” (meaning “the lights” as it’s popularly called) is a celebration of the pure and elemental, of light, of water. Commemorating the baptism of Christ, all the waters are blessed in a beautiful, purifying ritual.
Midmorning, festive processions head from churches toward their nearest body of water. In the happy case of Thessaloniki, groups are lined up all along the shores of the Thermaic Gulf, many on docks reaching out into the sea where waiting boats are moored.
The priest and altar boys of each procession (in opulent liturgical vestments), and several young men of the congregation (bare chested and in bathing suits) board their boat and head out from shore. The rest of us gather perilously close to the boardwalk’s edge, hoping for a clear line of sight.
Mild as the season’s weather may have been up to now, nearly always a north wind will have come up to sharpen the drama of Epiphany, whipping the sea into whitecaps (so charmingly called “little sheep” in Greek), and chasing clouds across a gloriously bright sky. The light blinds us; salty wind stings at our faces. But that’s nothing compared to the spectacle we have gathered here for: we can only imagine how cold the rough waters are as the priest throws in a cross as far as he can. There’s a breathless hush – a fraction of a second – then the young men dive in, competing to retrieve it. We gasp, even though we were expecting it; it’s exhilarating, this display of bravery, vanquishing the brutal elements in the name of faith, on behalf of us all.
The crowd is joyous when they return to shore; swimmers still wrapped in just towels are nevertheless warmed by triumph. We follow the procession back to the church, exchanging good wishes, the mood so lively it verges on boisterous. Inside, the line moves briskly as we approach the altar for our blessing: a refreshing bash of a great bundle of basil, damp with holy water, to the forehead and each shoulder. The air is sweet with the scent of it.
Outside the church, holy water flows though spigots from huge vessels. We all fill jars we have brought from home. We sip some ourselves, and bring back the rest for anyone still at home to take. We give some to our pets, and pour a little into each of our plants, blessing home and its every living thing.
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