Epiphany Festival To Kick Off Blessed Year

Taking stock of 2006, Jack Vasilaros categorizes it as a pretty good year: He started his own company and has a patent pending on its first product, Jack’s Easy Flush; caught a 650-pound blue marlin; made a mission trip to Costa Rica. And those braces that held his smile hostage? Gone. Not bad for a 17-year-old. “I can’t complain,” the Clearwater Beach teen says. “Maybe it had something to do with the cross. Someone up there was looking after me.”

A year ago, Vasilaros emerged the victor after 54 Greek boys dove into Spring Bayou to retrieve a cross thrown in by His All Holiness Bartholomew. It’s one of the most popular events at the annual Epiphany festival in Tarpon Springs. Tradition holds that the winner will have a year of blessings and good grace.

For Vasilaros, grace wasn’t just about what happened in 2006 – it’s about what didn’t happen. “I didn’t go to jail,” he says, referring to the fate of some past winners. “I put that model to rest.”

On Saturday, he will give up the mantel but not the cross, which stays in a glass box in his bedroom. His successor will be one of more than 50 Greek young men, ages 16 to 18, who will dive into the chilly waters for their chance at big-time blessings.

The Calvary Christian High School junior doesn’t have any advice for those vying for the honor. “I think it’s all out of your control,” he confides. “It’s fate. If you’re meant to get it, it will happen.”

This year’s festival follows the 2006 centennial celebration, which included the historic visit by Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians. But chilly weather and the fact it fell on a Friday resulted in smaller-than-expected crowds.

Ready For A Big Year > It’s going to be different this time, says Renee Salivaras, a board member at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral and owner of Mykonos Restaurant, across from the city’s famous sponge docks. As a 25-year resident, she has experienced enough of these festivals to know how it can transform this community of about 23,000 residents every Jan. 6.

“It’s on a Saturday, and the weather is supposed to be beautiful – whoa!” she says. “We’re always busy at Epiphany, but this could be one of the biggest years ever.”

Next to the Orthodox Easter, Salivaras loves Epiphany, which commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ at the River Jordan and the revelation of the Holy Trinity. From a spiritual perspective, it’s a time of renewal and rededication to faith; from a business perspective, it’s a golden opportunity to show visitors what Greek hospitality is all about.

“We’re passionate people, we’re loud people, and we like to have a lot of fun,” she says. “And we love feeding people. That’s a focal point of our culture.”

The staff at her restaurant, as well as those at dozens of other local eateries, has been cooking and baking overtime to prepare the dishes that define the city’s Greek heritage. Among them: dolmades (grape leaves stuffed with meat or rice); baklava, a Greek pastry made of layers of phyllo dough, chopped nuts and honey; avgolemono, a chicken-and-egg soup; pastitsio, a layered casserole of macaroni and chopped meat, topped with a custard sauce; and spanakopeta, a spinach pie.

She has this advice for the lines of hungry patrons: Get here early and be patient. It will be worth the wait.

“We’re trying to maintain that Greek flavor that nobody else has in the whole state of Florida – the sponging industry, the Greek food, the music, the gift shops,” Salivaras says. “That’s what makes us so special.”

New Host Counts His Blessings > This will be the Rev. Michael Eaccarino’s first Epiphany as an official host. But not his first festival, by any means. As a teen growing up in Miami, he was a member of a youth dance troupe that performed at the Tarpon Springs event. Eaccarino, 57, was installed as dean of St. Nicholas in June, taking over the vacancy left by the pastor of nearly three decades, the Rev. Tryfon Theophilopoulos. The beloved priest, considered one of Tarpon Spring’s best ambassadors and most energetic cheerleaders, died in October 2005.

Eaccarino came to the priesthood from a Fort Lauderdale bicycle shop, which he ran for 17 years. He had married, raised three children and served as a church volunteer when he was urged to follow his original calling. As a younger man, he had graduated from seminary but never was ordained. After a short conversation with his wife, Eaccarino said goodbye to secular life.

He pursued a specialty in youth ministry by studying at Emory University in Atlanta and under a California Protestant minister (“We’ve got the theology; they’ve got the methodology”). After serving parishes in Atlanta, Virginia and Colorado, he was asked to come to St. Nicholas – considered a plum assignment, given the cathedral’s central location in a thriving Greek-American community.

The only drawback: its proximity to Fournos Bakery. “Not so good for my South Beach diet,” laments Eaccarino, who has dropped 20 pounds in recent months. “God has really blessed me by bringing me to Tarpon Springs,” he says. “These are truly warm and wonderful people. Their love for each other and everyone who visits shows clearly. Not just at Epiphany, but every day of the year.”

All events take place Saturday. Call (727) 937-3540 for information.
8 a.m.: Orthros (a service) at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, 36 N. Hibiscus St., Tarpon Springs

9:30 a.m.: Divine Liturgy at the cathedral

12:15 p.m.: Traditional procession with clergy, altar servers, visiting dignitaries, schoolchildren dressed in traditional Greek costumes, band, choir, teen divers and the dove bearer with the white dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit

12:30 p.m.: Blessing of the waters by Archbishop Demetrios of North America Greek Orthodox Church, release of the dove and the dive for the cross

1-6 p.m.: Glendi festival at Craig Park with food, drink, live music and dancing. Admission is $2.

8 p.m.: Epiphany Ball at the Spanos-Pappas Community Center Theofilos Hall. Admission is $35.