Live updates: Greek community celebrates Epiphany in Tarpon Springs

by 24USATVJan. 6, 2022, 6 p.m. 24

• None Everything you need to know about the 116th Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs

Considered the largest Epiphany celebration in the Western Hemisphere, commemorating the baptism of Jesus Christ, the Tarpon Springs event traditionally draws more than 20,000 spectators. The archbishop casts a white cross into the waters of Spring Bayou and nearly 70 young men jump from boats in a competition to retrieve it. The center of the celebration is St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

The teenage boys are rearing to run into Spring Bayou and security isn’t letting spectators nearby move around much. In the distance, there is drumming and the sounds of Tarpon Springs High School marching band

12:10 p.m. Why do only boys dive for the cross?

The Tarpon Springs Greek community’s Epiphany celebration marks the baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. The Holy Spirit ascended from heaven in the form of a dove and God said, “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased,” said celebration coordinator Michael Kouskoutis.

Thus, said Kouskoutis, boys but not girls jump into the waters of Spring Bayou — in a competition to retrieve a white cross — to represent Jesus, a male, and the waters of baptism.

That and the fact that with 68 boys thrashing around, the competition is physically rough, he said.

This explanation doesn’t satisfy all those who would like to see the tradition expanded to include girls.

11:30 a.m. For the divers, visibility is low

Lt. Stuart Spoede of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, is a part of the dive team today. Their job is to make sure none of the teenage cross divers drowns and there’s nothing harmful is in the water.

The depth of the water changes with the tides but, as of now, the water is 10 feet deep beneath the dinghies and just 3 feet deep where the cross will be thrown. Visibility appears to be low.

11:15 a.m. Through generations, the dive has changed

At 9 a.m., Nicholas Manglis was among a handful of divers dutifully awaiting their procession to Spring Bayou, where they receive a blessing from the archbishop. Mangalis hands were clasped as if in prayer as he sat next to his dad, John Michael Manglis, on a bench outside St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

But the 17-year-old Tarpon High School student had his eyes fixed on a bronze statue of a young diver holding a cross triumphantly in the air. Mangalis didn’t dive last year — there was some mixup with his baptismal records, he said — so he wasn’t expecting the nerves he felt when he woke up early Thursday.

His father, 42, a sandblaster and painter, has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Epiphany. He points out some of the divers from years past who are in attendance, including one — rumored to be the model for the bronze statue — who’s posing for pictures with his son.

”Today’s cross dive is nothing like when I was a kid,” John Michael Manglis said. “Back then, there was no Instagram or Twitter. We all just hung out with each other, diving off the docks and pretending to be spongers like our dad and grandad and great-grandad.

“Everyone knew who got the cross each year, and why that year they deserved it — why it was meant to be them.

Much of the sponging and fishing industry died out here long ago, sending some families packing for friendlier waters in North Carolina and turning those who stayed into painters or sandblasters. It was a working-class life back then. It wasn’t unusual to see boys diving in cutoff Jean shorts, or see boys emerge from the water with broken clavicles and cuts on their stomachs.

”Today it’s a totally different game, totally different world, but it still means something,” he said as he listened to his son chat with friends about a boy who bought his diving trunks from Burberry.

When Manglis’ son got his white epiphany shirt at Wednesday night’s divers meeting, he held it up, pressed it against his face and began to sob. His aunt and mother were quick to comfort him — don’t worry, we can get it altered if it needs to be fixed, it’ll look great!

But he wasn’t upset, the proud father said. He was happy.

”He told us, ‘I just feel like I’ve already been blessed. It’s real now. It’s actually happening.’”

Manglis’ grandfather retrieved the cross one year, and later his brother. So did his son’s godfather. Manglis never did — a disappointment, sure, but not enough to take away the buoyant feeling as you jump into the chilly spring water, he said.

It’s roll call time for Epiphany divers. But first some reminders from organizer Michael Kouskotis from St. Nicholas cathedral: Walk reverentially — no running. Only 10 teens to a boat, no dogpiling in just one or two dinghies. Stay in the boat. “If the boat sinks, you stay in it.” Moms look alarmed

Ioannis Mzaronias, 16, may be the only diver who wears glasses when he’s not in the water. Will he use contacts today? Goggles aren’t allowed.

“I won’t do it with contacts,” he said. “I’ll just feel around and trust the Lord to be my sight.”

9:20 a.m. Water too cold in Greece!

Sixty-eight teenage boys will take part in today’s mid-day cross dive at Spring Bayou, organizers said. The water temperature, like the air temperature, is expected to be a chilly 69 degrees.

What’s the criteria? Participants must be 16 to 18, baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church and in “good standing” with the church. Far fewer dive this day in Greece, locals say — the water is just too cold!

People are beginning to take their seats inside St. Nicholas cathedral, where Orthros and liturgy services are taking place. Last year, capacity was limited inside because of coronavirus concerns. There are no restrictions this year.

Epiphany is when the Greek community celebrates the baptism of Jesus Christ in the river Jordan by John the Baptist.

8:50 a.m. The ‘Greekest’ city of all

Tarpon Springs has more Greeks per capita than any other U.S. city, staff writer Anastasia Dawson reports as she prepares to cover today’s Epiphany celebration. The local extravaganza dates back to 1906.

8:30 a.m. Spreading the word in Greek

The Tarpon Springs celebration draws the attention of a New York City-based online news site for the Greek community. Tweet translation: “All of #TarponSprings on the “foot” for #Thanksgiving - The boats were sanctified.”

8 a.m. Arriving at cathedral for Orthros

Families have arrived for Orthros, the service that starts the day’s Epiphany observances at St. Nicholas cathedral.

“It’s a day for our faith, for our family, for everything,” said Nikoletta Kavouklis, 37, who came with children Angelica, Emmanouela and Hatalambos. “It’s something we wait for each year.”

6:40 a.m. Public welcome, no restrictions

People are up and preparing for the start of the day’s Epiphany celebration at 8 a.m. in Tarpon Springs.

Epiphany was celebrated last January under COVID-19 restrictions, but this year anyone can attend and no masks are required. Mask mandates have been lifted by the Direct Archdiocesan District of the Greek Orthodox church, which directs members to follow state and local health and safety guidelines.

That means no restrictions on how many people crowd St. Nicholas cathedral and the banks of Spring Bayou. Organizers were wondering whether attendance will return to re-pandemic levels.

“This year is like a breath of fresh air,” spokesperson and organizer Johanna Gatzoulis said. “After such a horrible year with COVID, everyone is just so excited to have something to celebrate and so thankful we’re able to do so without restrictions.”

One feature of the celebration missing again this year is Glendi — a day-long festival of Greek dancing, music and food. Scrapped last year because of the pandemic, this year’s Glendi was canceled because there weren’t enough volunteers.

Forecasts call for a temperature of about 60 in Tarpon Springs for 8 a.m. and the start of the day’s Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs. It should warm to 69 by mid-day, when teen boys jump into Spring Bayou to retrieve the white cross.

The boys can expect the same chilly temperature in the water — 69 degrees. There’s no rain in the forecast during daylight hours Thursday.

The festivities begin at 8 a.m. with the morning service known as Orthros at St. Nicholas cathedral, 36 N Pinellas Ave., followed by a liturgy at 9 a.m. and the blessing of the waters.


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