TARPON SPRINGS, Fla. (AP) — After thunderstorms moved past, Florida’s largest Greek Orthodox community celebrated the Epiphany on Saturday as a 16-year-old boy dove into chilly water to retrieve a cross in an annual rite that draws thousands.
John Hittos found the cross before 64 other boys after it was thrown into a bayou in Tarpon Springs, a town on the Gulf Coast 30 miles north of Tampa and known for its large Greek community. The retriever of the cross is believed to receive a year of blessings. It is one of the largest Epiphany celebrations in the country.
“I didn’t see where the cross went in the water,” Hittos told reporters after emerging from the 65-degree (18-degree Celsius) water. “I didn’t know where it was, but I had a feeling and I just went down. I couldn’t see anything, but it was in my hand.”
The Epiphany commemorates the manifestation of Jesus to the world and comes from the Greek word “epiphaneia,” which means “appearance.” It is marked by Christians around the world with celebrations ranging from parades and gift-giving for children to the blessing of water. The holiday is also called the Feast of Epiphany, Three Kings Day and Theophany. In some traditions, it celebrates the baptism of Jesus and in others the visit of the Three Magi to the Baby Jesus.
The boys were led to the water from St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral by clergy and a nervous 17-year-old Chloe Kotis, who carried a white dove representing the Holy Spirit, She released it over the water before the dive.
“I’m happy to hold something that means so much,” she told the Tampa Bay Times.
Many Greek immigrants were drawn to Tarpon Springs because the waters were flush with sponges, and they quickly built a thriving industry. Others established restaurants, pastry shops and markets that offer a Mediterranean feel.