Theofaneia in Crete

by Alexandra Smithies

“Hey, ho, the wind and the rain…” That comes from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and it’s usually very appropriate for January 6th in Britain. Centuries ago, the 12 days of Christmas used to be given a terrific send-off on the feast of the Epiphany, with parties and theatricals, everybody making the most of the holiday until the very last, but these days Twelfth Night is marked only by the taking down of the decorations, usually accompanied by miserable weather and gloomy back-to-work thoughts. Another good reason for living in Crete!

In the Western Christian tradition we celebrate Epiphany, the acknowledgment of Christ’s divinity by the Magi, or Three Kings. But in the Orthodox Church they prefer to call the feast Theophany, or Theofaneia. The Three Wise Men are sidelined: the day’s big celebration is all about Jesus’s baptism by St John the Baptist.

Theofaneia in Crete

A man has just retrieved the cross and holds it with pride. Photo by Sakis Mitrolidis
A man has just retrieved the cross and holds it with pride. Photo by Sakis Mitrolidis

So it’s the day for blessing bodies of water (like the baptismal Jordan) for changing holy water in churches and homes. Long before Christianity got its hands on January, it was also the period for celebrating, and making offerings to, the deities of the stream and the lake. (I love all that, all the subversive pagan undertow to such events). It’s the day for the tossing of the Holy Cross into harbours, where hardy local lads will then compete to retrieve it; a day, in short, to be outdoors for a bit of fun and spectacle.

If you have a stretch of water handy, which you usually do in Crete, you head for it and watch the celebrations. Last January 6th was the most beautiful mild, sunny, green-and-gold day, with the midday temperature nudging 20. We were at Plakias bright and early, having bowled along silent, empty roads through the olive groves to the bay, which was at its sparkling indigo prettiest, and had time for coffee at the water’s edge before taking up our positions on the harbour wall.

We were in pole position to watch the ceremony, looking down on the five priests at the quayside altar, and observing as each one opened his personal little suitcase, and brought out the ceremonial blue-and-white stoles and surplices to top the black workaday garments. Along with the priestly books, candles, censers, matches, lighters, fags, and the small wooden cross, garlanded with blue ribbons, for the hurling into the harbour. As they were getting dressed up, some dozen village boys – aged between about eight and 25 – were stripping down to their trunks, and leaning forward for the off.

Very rich, that ceremony – a uniquely Greek mixture of beauty and farce, homeliness and grandeur, against the spectacular backdrop of mountain and ocean. The leading priest was very, very old, quavery and shaky, and he only managed to plop the cross into the shallow water below, where the trailing ribbons caused it to be instantly found and grabbed by the one lad who’d broken ranks and leapt too early.

There was a bit of an embarrassed to-do, and I think everyone quietly agreed to pretend it hadn’t happened, and start again. One of the huskier priests ripped the giveaway ribbons off the crucifix, and the venerable one managed a better overarm delivery second time round.

Epiphany Crete GreeceThe swimmers plunged in unison, diving in and surfacing like leaping salmon, a graceful shoal heading for the spot. Then the daft bit, when they couldn’t find the cross for ages, and you realised they were standing not much more than waist deep, and all the relatives in the crowd were yelling encouragement: “Come on, Kosti. You show them!” “Sifi! Use your feet!” “Bend down and feel for it!” A lot of jolly red-faced shuffling and squidging, and duck-diving, before one lad held it triumphantly aloft, to applause.

Before they headed the few yards back to shore, the boys moved spontaneously as one into a kind of exuberant lap of honour, a synchronised swim for the joy of it, barrelling through the waves towards the open sea. Effortless energy, the grace and beauty of youth: a throat catching moment.

Down to earth and back on land, goose-pimples and all, the swimmers were towelled and back-slapped and cheered, the village ladies handed out raki and cake to everyone, especially the foreign visitor, the priests divestmented, and the crowds drifted away to the cafes.

Traditionally in England Epiphany is followed by nothing jollier than Plough Monday, the first day back at work. But in Greece, there’s a bonus: not only is January 6th a proper public holiday, but we then get an extra day’s partying with all the Yannises: January 7th is the name day of the St John who did the baptising.

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