My friend, Paulina, recently moved to Tarpon Springs, Florida and invited me over for brunch followed by the Epiphany celebration. At first, I didn’t know what the Epiphany was so when I looked it up, I found out that in 1903, the Greek community in Tarpon Springs started the event in remembrance of the baptism of Jesus Christ in the water of Jordan River 2,000 ago. It is held on January 6th every year and is highlighted by local teenage boys diving into Spring Bayou to retrieve a cross thrown into the water by an archbishop. The boy who surfaces with the cross is said to have good luck for the year. Sounded like an interesting event, so I drove to Tarpon Springs from Tampa to see what it was all about.
Tarpon Springs is an interesting city in itself. It is located 40 minutes northwest of Tampa and 35 minutes north of Clearwater Beach. It is known for their Greek community and the sponge industry that started back in the late 1800s . Today, Tarpon Springs has the highest percentage of Greek Americans of any city in the United States. The sponge industry isn’t as booming as it once was, but there is still a small active sponge industry and you can see sponge fisherman working at the Sponge Docks on Dodecanese Boulevard.
I started my day in Tarpon Springs around 11 AM with a lovely brunch made by my dear friends Paulina and Angie. They invited a handful of family and friends and it was great catching up with everyone that I hadn’t seen in a while. We all enjoyed the lovely brunch the sisters made for us and headed out to Spring Bayou, which was only a 10-minute walk from their house.
When we arrived around 12:30 PM it was already packed with people. We heard singing in the distance, which was probably the water being blessed before the archbishop threw the cross into the water. We couldn’t really hear much because we were on the opposite side of where the action was happening and there were news helicopters everywhere capturing the event as well.
All of sudden I heard some cheering and just like that, the race was over. We didn’t even see the boys dive into the water! For some reason, in my mind, I thought the boys were going to swim across the bayou to retrieve this cross and I imagined it would take at least 10 minutes. What actually happened was the boys were in very close proximity to the archbishop and the cross being thrown into the water, so the boy was able to retrieve the cross in less than 60 seconds.
I was a little disappointed that we missed the highlighted event of the day, but we all just had no idea how this thing was going to happen, so lesson learned. Everyone started walking towards the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral to watch the boy being blessed by the archbishop. Again, I wasn’t really sure what was going on when we arrived at the church, so we waited outside and watched the long line going into the church.
We saw proud families congratulating the local teenage boys that competed and lots of pictures being taken like it was homecoming. After we saw the archbishop leave, we decided to go into the church to see who actually retrieved the cross. We walked through the beautiful church to the back and there we saw the star of the day, 17-year-old Ilias Skandaliaris. He looked so happy with all of his friends and family surrounding him and everyone wanting to take a picture with him or get an interview with him.
Afterwards, there was a festival surrounding the church with food, drinks, live music and dancing. The girls and I were too full from the brunch we had earlier and really needed to use the restroom, so we headed back to Paulina and Angie’s house and enjoyed the rest of our day there.
Although we missed the highlight of the event, I still had an awesome time. Not only was it great to spend time with friends but it was also great to see this old tradition still going strong in Florida and watch these teenage boys, families and the community all coming together to have a wonderful day of celebration.
Next time, we’ll have a better understanding of where we need to be at and what time to arrive so we can actually see the divers!