Tarpon Springs Epiphany Tradition
The History of Epiphany
The Orthodox Christian celebrates Epiphany on January 6th of each year, in remembrance of the baptism of our Jesus Christ in the water of Jordan River 2000 ago. In the old country, Jesus Christ baptismal day was celebrated with spiritual emotion and long procession. Following tradition, the Greek community established that January the 6th of each year will be celebrated with the sanctification of the waters and the immersion of the cross in the Spring bayou on “Cross Day” or “Epiphany”. The first observance of Epiphany in Tarpon Springs was celebrated by the first settlers in 1903, and was held in a Episcopal church which was attended by few people. In the next few years, as the news spread throughout USA and Canada, devoted Greeks and Americans made the pilgrimage from all over the nation and Canada, in order to take part in the celebration of Epiphany and its three-day festivities.
One of the faithful visitors was the late Rev. Dr. Thomas J. Lacey, Director of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Brooklyn, New York. He came in 1906 at the insistence of Bishop W. Crane Gray, from Orlando. Since Bishop Gray was unable to attend, Dr. Lacey represented him. Rev. Lacey was so impressed with the Greek religious ceremony, that he had made it an annual pilgrimage to attend the Epiphany. He became one of the most familiar religious figures noted at the celebration. He attended for twenty (20) consecutive years, and thirty four (34) out of thirty six (36), and became an honored member of the Greek community. Furthermore, the Greek government with the “Order of the King George” decorated him, for his work among the Greek people. Rev. Lacey participated in the celebration by reading the gospel in English and offered prayers for the president and the United Stated Forces.
Nowhere in America was the feast of Epiphany celebrated as it was in Tarpon Springs where the ceremonies are identical to those taken place in and around Greece. The whole city was covered with Christian banners representing the baptism of Christ, Easter, and other Christian scenes. The whole town became alive with activity not only down town, but also the waterfront, where the entire sponge fleet and the other boats anchored in line. Most of them were painted in white and blue symbolic of Greece, and in their mast, they flew the Greek and American flags. Moreover, these flags were also placed on the light poles of the streets in the city.
Vendors would move along the crowd selling toy balloons, cotton candy, whistling birds on a stick, and various sweets.
Church service would start as soon as the sun would rise on the eastern horizon at 7:00am. Two candles which were six feet high would be placed at the entrance of the altar. They would be lighted the evening before Epiphany.
As the service continued in the morning, the parishioners and the visitors crowded into every available space in the church. Immediately after the Divine Liturgy, his Eminence followed by the priests, deacons, and the Byzantine choir, would go the marble “kiosk”, which is on the north side of the church ground. It is here that he would give his blessings of the holy water. The holy water would then be taken home by the parishioners as well as little sprigs of basil, which is symbolic of good health, blessings, and happiness.
A colorful procession began after the Agiasmo (sanctification of the waters), at 12:00 noon. The procession is lead by the police on motorcycles and cars, along with the United States Coast Guard. The grand Marshall then, followed by the Acolytes (altar boys) in blue and white, as they held religious banners, followed by the Greek school. Some these students would dress in the costumes of their ancestors, while holding the American and Greek flag. Following them would be the Boys and Girl Scouts. The various Greek clubs and societies would follow the bands of Tarpon Springs High School and neighboring communities. Clubs and societies that participated in the procession include: Kalymnians, Halkians, Symians, Aegeans, AHEPA, GAPA, Veteran organizations, and the American Legion. Twelve young girls dressed in ancient Greek costumes, would have a ribbon across the torso that would have the name of the Dodecanese islands written on it. Three young girls would then follow, representing America, Greece, and Liberty. Next, would be the children in evzone costumes, which would always be the highlight of the procession.
A designated person to be the dove bearer would march in the procession, wearing a black robe while holding the white dove that had a blue ribbon tied around its foot. For several years, Kostas Tsimpikas, a Halkian Prominent member of the community was the dove bearer. However, in 1935, many members of the young Byzantine choir chose Melba Smitzes, which was a ten-year-old girl, to be the first girl dove bearer. Since then has became the tradition of the procession young girls to be dove bearers. George Anastassiou would lead the Byzantine choir since he was the original director of the choir and the principal of the Greek Parochial School.
The Archbishop would then follow, as he wore his formal religious vestments. The priests, deacons, the chanters, and mayor of the city, president and members of the communities, visiting dignitaries, and then faithful parishioners would follow the Governor of Florida and the Ambassador of Greece.
Once the line of the procession would reach the Spring Bayou the Archbishop along with the other priests, deacons and the choir, would board a barge that would take them to the center of the circular bayou. This made it possible for nearly every person to see the ceremony. Four loud speakers would form a cross over the Archbishops head, so that everyone could hear him. However, in 1956, the barge was no longer used, instead, a sponge boat was used. In may small rowboats, young spongers and high school students would wait anxiously for the great moment. The Archbishop would bless the waters, then 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”. It is at that moment that the white dove would be released by the dove bearer. The white dove symbolized the Holy Ghost, as it appeared when John baptized his teacher in Jordan River (the symbol of peace).
The Archbishop would then throw a golden cross into the water, which the same moment, the divers would dive into the waters, as they would swim, wrestle, and churn the waters in search of the cross. The throwing of the cross symbolizes casting of the bread of truth upon the trouble world. The plunging of the young boys into the waters signifies the immersion into the river Jordan of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The diver who retrieves the cross would then climb onto the barge and kneel before the Archbishop, as he would hand him the golden cross. At this time, the Archbishop would bless the young man and congratulate him.
For hundred of years in the land of the Greek forefathers, whoever retrieves the cross, it has been said that he would have good fortune and divine beneficence. Upon return to the church, the divers are asked to stand at the altar, while the retriever would receive special blessings. The successful diver with the rest of the boys would make the Epiphany rounds, as they visit the houses and businesses of the town. They would sing religious hymns of Christ’s baptism. The people are allowed to kiss the cross, place flowered basil on the silver tray and give donations to the church. A portion of the money collected would be given to the boy who retrieved the cross.
After the ceremony at the bayou, the procession would return to the church, where bottles of water, which have been blessed earlier, would be distributed to the faithful, so that they could bless their homes with it. In the afternoon, the Archbishop and priests could go the waterfront where the Agiasmo (sanction of the waters) took place; they would then bless the boats. The Greek community believes unconditionally that a hurricane will not pass through the city of Tarpon Springs because St. Nicholas, which is patron saint and the protector of the seamen, will protect the city and its residents as well. The last hurricane, which passed through this city, was in 1920.
Following the closing of the religious services, the people would then gather at the Glendi festival area where they would eat, drink and dance. It would be an opportunity to meet old friends and make new ones. In the evening, many would attend the Epiphany ball.
The next day would be a Gulf outing that was arranged by the Greek community. They would ensure that enough boats from the sponge fleets would be available to carry everyone the Gulf (to the Anclote islands of Tarpon Springs). This excursion would be free of charge.
For three days, the city of Tarpon Springs would celebrate Epiphany with dances, picnics, and theatrical plays that were provided by the societies, AHEPA and the Philoptochos.