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Christmas isn’t over ‘til the water’s blessed

by SHOLEH PATRICK
| January 2, 2024 1:00 AM

In a quiet corner of Tampa Bay at the Fournos Bakery — or any of the other four bakery-cum-coffee-shops within a 10-block radius — the shop owner and customers invariably speak Greek. That’s not surprising. Most residents in the sponge capital of Tarpon Springs are of Greek descent, heavily invested in a close-knit culture that still permeates daily life in this quaint tourist town.

And while December has come and gone, each transaction is followed by a cheerful, “Merry Christmas!” That’s because Greek Orthodox Christmas follows the Christian Feast of the Epiphany celebrating Jesus Christ’s baptism on Jan. 6.

That’s why in this town and other American Orthodox communities, Christmas just isn’t Christmas without water.

A few blocks south in Spring Bayou this past weekend, a ring of small fishing boats encircled a small area where manatees like to fish in winter (the warm spring draws a steady supply). On this cool Saturday morning three adult manatees and a calf lingered just outside the ropes, while boys and young men took turns plunging into the cold water to retrieve an object. Each time one jumped in, smiling and shivering, a small crowd cheered.

In this atypical Christmas scene, a playful dolphin was watching, too, swimming alongside delighted children at the water’s edge.

The boys were practicing for the Blessing of the Waters Day on the Feast of the Epiphany. In this centuries-old Greek tradition, a priest tosses a cross into the sea, symbolizing the bread of truth cast upon a troubled world. As boys dive to retrieve it, a prayer commemorates Christ’s baptismal immersion in the River Jordan.  

Whoever finds the submerged cross gets a special blessing and good luck throughout the new year. In the old days, the divers would take the cross and visit homes so people could kiss it (and offer donations) before the traditional festival, still kicked off by a procession in the streets.

The Blessing of the Waters is about more than Christmas tradition and good luck. This Greek community founded by sponge divers believes that a hurricane won’t pass directly through the city of Tarpon Springs (not that some storm damage still doesn’t happen) because St. Nicholas, its patron saint and protector of seafarers, will protect them.

They may be right; it’s been more than 100 years.

In the abbreviated words of the Epiphany blessing, may yours be a prosperous and peaceful life, with health, salvation, and the furtherance of all good things for many years.

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email sholeh@cdapress.com.