The air stings my nose when I step out of the car. Its dashboard reads 40°. Cold for Florida. It’s 8:20 AM, and I have struck gold with parking for an event that will soon bring 20,000 people to this little waterfront park. Right now, it’s rather empty. I walk past the racquetball court and amphitheater, take note of electric outlets as I’m using only my phone today. The biggest staghorn fern I’ve ever seen distracts me. I stop to photograph the plant that is so big it now rests on the ground rather than from a chain wrapped around a tree branch.
A handful of people line the seawall with camp chairs or blankets. By noon, the crowd will stand eight deep, climb up the hill that rises from Spring Bayou at one side, flow into Craig Park at the other side. Today is Epiphany in Tarpon Springs, one of the busiest days the town will see all year.
Every January, when the rest of the country boxes up the holidays, this small community in Florida holds their biggest celebration of the holiday season. Epiphany in Tarpon Springs marks this Greek community’s religious celebration of Christ’s baptism. For the teen boys who dive for the cross, Epiphany in Tarpon Springs means a day when they test their relationship with God through this physical feat.
Speakers at the stage transmit the Greek Orthodox mass live. It started at 8 AM with Orthros (“early dawn”) and will include the Archierarchical Liturgy and Greater Blessings of Water. Chanting and singing streams across the frigid morning air drowning out the smattering of conversations from those who have already claimed their spots for the morning. The mass at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox church will continue for several hours. The entire ceremony will be broadcast through the speakers as the seawall and grass banks of the bayou fill with residents and visitors, police and news anchors.
Tarpon Springs houses a huge Greek community. St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral dominates the downtown region, it’s dome and cross rising above the surrounding buildings. With such a huge Greek influence, it’s no surprise that Epiphany in Tarpon Springs is the considered the largest Epiphany celebration in the world. What began as a simple feast day – or rather, three days – has become a way for this community to embrace outsiders, celebrate with each other, and spread the knowledge and love of their faith, though Epiphany is not strictly an Eastern Orthodox tradition.
History of Epiphany
Episcopalians celebrated the first Epiphany in Tarpon Springs in 1903. News spread of the celebration and in the next few years, faithful Greeks, Americans, and Canadians made the pilgrimage to Tarpon Springs to join in the festivities. Then came the Greek immigrants in 1905, with their Greek Orthodox religion and traditions, and Epiphany stuck. Early festivities spanned three days and began Epiphany Eve with the lighting of two 6’ tall candles at the entrance to the altar. Orthros began at 7 AM the next morning. After the Divine Liturgy, the Archbishop gave Agiasmo (“sanctification of the waters”), and then the procession made its way down Tarpon Avenue to Spring Bayou.
Until 1956, the Archbishop and his entourage boarded a barge, and the ceremony proceeded from the middle of the bayou. From this position, everyone had a good view of the ceremony. In 1956, the barge was replaced by a sponge boat, and years later when a stage was built at one end of the bayou, the celebration remained on land where it is today. The Archbishop blessed the waters and read from the first chapter of St. Mark’s, verse 9: “and it came to pass in those days…he saw the heavens opened, and the spirit like a dove descending upon him, and there came a voice from heaven saying, ‘Thou art my beloved son, in thee I am well pleased’”. A white dove was released and the cross tossed into the bayou where the community’s boys tried to find it. Three days of festivities followed, including music and dancing, food and drinking.
These traditions mirror those held in Greece. In that country, the cross is made of metal, painted gold, and tossed into the cold waters of the Mediterranean. Epiphany in Tarpon Springs uses a white wood cross, which sinks more slowly, and is tossed into the shallow waters of Spring Bayou.
Waiting for Epiphany
I walk through the park. A fire rescue boat idles at the entrance to the bayou. I take photos. Click. Click. Walkers pass by, carrying coffee mugs, holding leashes. Some quick-paced; others strolling. Fish and Wildlife trucks are parked in two columns of three beside the fenced-off media area. News vans line the road.
I keep walking, photographing. The bayou waters sit as still as glass. Each time I step to the water’s edge, the clarity surprises me. What looks like dark, still waters are actually crystal-clear waters with a dark bottom, mud and sponges.
Tarpon Avenue has been closed to traffic. A group of teen boys walk past. Dressed in hoodies, board shorts, and flip flops, their conversation drifts back to me, “It’s cold at first. Just swim…” County sheriffs gather on a corner. Down the street, city police cars and a SWAT truck guard another corner. As I walk by, two officers cross the street and disappear down the alleys behind the cathedral, rifles ready in their hands. This is when the magnitude of this day hits me. His Eminence, the Archbishop, is here. Actors and Congressmen sit in attendance. The more I walk, the more I notice the overwhelming police presence.
At first, I planned to take a few early photos, head home for a couple of hours, then come back for the 1 PM dive for the cross. With my excellent parking spot, I decide to stay in Tarpon Springs. The Bayou Café offers unlimited coffee and a warm place to sit beside an electric outlet. An hour later, I walk back to the park and hole up in my car. The singing from the cathedral penetrates closed windows. I close my eyes and wait while the meditative tones blanket me.
At 11 AM, I cross the park again, meander around the seawall to Tarpon Avenue. I take up a spot behind the barricades, a palm tree at my back for support. ABC News is set up beside me with a camcorder. Divers’ families, white badges flashing in the sun, start lining the processional way. The crowds have packed the banks of the bayou. Scuba divers wait in the water, a safety precaution for the boys who will soon chase the cross. Fire rescue and sheriff boats roped off the bayou’s basin. Behind them, private boats anchor, and kayaks float at the front. The procession fills Tarpon Avenue at 12:15 and begins an hour of blessings, anticipation, and cheering.