For those of you who follow the Julian calendar (on which today is the sixth of January), happy Theophany!
Today, we celebrate the baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan by John, the feast of which is called the Theophany or Epiphany. You can read Saint John Chrysostom’s sermon for the feast here.
In the celebration of Theophany, priests bless holy water for the year. Parishioners usually take bottles of it home for home blessings and for drinking after morning prayers. It is also customary for priests to bless a nearby body of water, like a river, lake, or ocean. There are many other local customs for the feast. In Russia, Christians carve crosses into the ice and people jump into the blessed water, in obvious reference to Christ’s baptism and to their own baptism in Christ. Here is a news segment from Russia:
So, we see that the secular polar bear swim on New Year’s Day has religious precedent. Such is often the case for our practices, from theater to etiquette.
In warmer regions like Greece, Christian communities may have cross retrieval contests for the young men. For this, the whole community assembles beside the ocean or sea for the blessing of the waters. Afterward, a bishop or a priest throws a wooden cross into the water. Whoever gets it first gains glory and admiration as well as a special blessing from the priest. Sometimes, the other boys will carry the winner back to the town’s parish on their shoulders. Girls are sometimes given the job of releasing doves in the air during the celebration, which obviously symbolizes the Holy Spirit in gospel accounts. The Greek community in Tarpon Springs, Florida demonstrates this celebration well:
Have a great day, and be grateful for water, which the Lord has blessed by being baptized in it.