Epiphany on Symi
Though not really an ‘event’ (Epiphany is a celebration), we’ve often been asked to explain what it is and what happens here on Symi. Here are a few, basic notes, some photos from previous Symi Epiphany celebrations and a short video from Symi Epiphany 2010. [See also the Simi Epiphany photo gallery here.]
In Greece, Epiphany is celebrated on January 6th, and Symi is no exception to this. If you are here at this time you can expect to see ceremonies in Yialos, and in Pedi, and occasionally in Harani. The sea is blessed, a cross is thrown in and young men dive and swim to have the honour of being the first to retrieve the cross. The ‘winner’ later takes the cross around the villages by way of celebration.
But there is more to Epiphany than this. The word ‘Epiphany’ comes from the Greek word Theofania, meaning ‘the appearance of God’, being made up of Theos (God) and Fania (appearance), and January 6th is also the Greek name day for Agia Theofana, and anyone with a derivative of that name. Epiphany in Greece is a symbolisation of the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist, though in some cultures it is also the day on which the three Wise Men appeared to the infant Jesus. In some other, Eastern, Orthodox countries Epiphany is celebrated on January 19th and Christmas Day on January 6th. (For example, the Russian Orthodox church which follows the Gregorian calendar.)
Here in Greece the celebrations start on the day before, on 5th January, with the priest blessing the holy water inside the church, in the font. (The bells in Horio started ringing at 5.40 a.m. on January 5th this year.) On the morning of 6th there is a service, followed by the community gathering on the quayside, or by the shore, to watch the blessing of the water and to see the retrieving of the cross. The cross here is usually made of wood, and we’ve seen, on the television news, that sometimes it is also attached to a string or rope, particularly in high winds or rough seas. The boys and men wade or dive in after it and race to be the first to touch it, pick it up, kiss it and bring it safely ashore. With the waters, and the fishing boats, thus blessed it is safe for sailing to start again and, in some traditions, it is also celebrated that the ‘goblins’, the kallinkantzari, or malicious spirits, that were present until the day have finally left and gone.
Epiphany also marks the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and it’s another tradition (though not necessary only in Greece) that all Christmas decorations are down by or on this date.
The tradition of marking this day may also be attributed to the Romans who celebrated the opening navigation at this time – though with the high probability of rough sees and high winds at this time of year you have to wonder why. Other theories about Epiphany include: a Roman day of worshiping the emperor, as a festival day, and a pagan festival giving offerings to the sea and rivers to ensure their benevolence. I guess it depends on your belief.
But the sure thing, here on Symi and around Greece, is that there will be church bells, services, the blessing of the sea by the Priests (most notably in Piraeus) and the diving for the cross, later followed by the parading of the cross. Some business will be closed, at least for the morning, and there will be a good crowd in Yialos to witness the event.