It‘s all Greek Cheer at special tea for Christmas fund

It‘s The Herald Christmas Cheer time again. And this time it‘s the Greeks, as well as other good friends, who are bearing wonderful gifts to help folk in need of enjoying something special in the festive season.

And so it was that Beggar-in-Chief yesterday entered an Aladdin‘s Cave of Christmas decorations in Evy Evlambiou‘s scintillating Christmas Shop in the Walker Drive Centre off Kabega Road.

The Beggar got together with Evy, Olga Hafner and other members of the Hellenic community who are to stage a special Greek Tea on Saturday, October 27, at 2 for 2.30pm in the Hellenic Hall. Funds raised will boost this year‘s Christmas Cheer Fund, the charity that spreads goodwill to the poor, the needy and the lonely at Christmas.

Once more, The Herald is seeking funds for Christmas Cheer, with Rodney Gibson acting as treasurer. He and the Beggar are looking forward to contributions from the more fortunate who, year by year, show generosity to the fund. Last year, it rose to a whopping R739 522.

And already there is a humungous figure in the kitty thanks to the women of Port Elizabeth‘s Club 100 who raised a whopping R160 000 in this year‘s Christmas in June two-night extravaganza, with further boosts from the Boardwalk and Pick ‘n Pay.

Donations to the fund may be sent to The Herald Christmas Cheer Fund, Private Bag X071, Port Elizabeth, 6001.

A dive for good luck

Epiphany is an ancient Greek Orthodox ceremony commemorating Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River.

A cross is tossed into the water, and the diver to retrieve it receives a blessing. On Saturday, the 101st Epiphany celebration, that was Michael Xipolitas. The 18-year-old beat 51 other divers to emerge from Spring Bayou in Tarpon Springs with the cross. Police estimated about 20,000 onlookers attended.

See it > View video coverage on the Web at

Details > Read full story on 101st Epiphany celebration >

Teen diver snags Epiphany cross > Retriever Of The Cross

His fellow cross divers carried Michael Nikitas Xipolitas, this year’s retriever, on their shoulders to St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral

TARPON SPRINGS > An ailing mother’s dream came true Saturday when Michael Nikitas Xipolitas came out of the paddling madness in Spring Bayou with the prized Epiphany cross held high.

Helen Xipolitas, her leukemia in remission, said a dream she had in the hospital about a year ago inspired her to get better. “When I was sick,” she said, “I had a dream that told me, ‘Get up and go see your son catch the cross.’ A dream was confirmed and came true today. “My God, I could feel it before he came up out of the water that he had it. And when I saw his hand come up, holding the cross, I knew it was my son’s fist. A mother knows.”

Michael Xipolitas, like his mother, was overcome after winning the race for the white wooden cross against 51 other Greek Orthodox teenage divers. He crouched at the foot of the platform steps awaiting the blessing of Archbishop Demetrios and broke out in tears, shaking his head.

“This means everything to me,” Michael Xipolitas said later. “This is the best day of my life, a memory I will never forget. “I could not move when I got out of the water; I had no energy. I was in shock.”

The cross diving was the focal point in a long day of Greek Orthodox celebration of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. An estimated 15,000 turned out for the 101st Epiphany Day Celebration, which featured church services and a procession to the bayou before the cross toss.

There was an Epiphany Glendi festival afterward at Craig Park, highlighted by food, music and dancing, and an Epiphany Ball at the Spanos-Pappas Community Center Theofilos Hall.

Xipolitas, who turned 18 on Thursday, ran and jumped feet first into the bayou with the others on command. He quickly swam to one of two rowboats best positioned for the quickest path to where the cross would be thrown, and took off after doves were released and Archbishop Demetrios heaved the cross. “All I could see above water was the tip of the top of the cross,” he said. “I grabbed it with my right hand and got out of the water.”

His fellow divers slapped his back and planted kisses on his cheek and neck before carrying him on their shoulders less than a mile to St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. There was no holding back of emotion. His mother began screaming for joy when she realized her son had the cross, and she had to be held by both arms and escorted up brick West Tarpon Avenue to the cathedral. She called her father, John Pontikos of Tarpon Springs, on a cell phone and shouted, “Dad! Michael got the cross!” She was unable to reach her husband, Nikitas, by phone. Helen Xipolitas, 49, is on medication and still undergoing chemotherapy. “I always have faith in God, and that is why I am here,” she said. “And that is why my dream has come true for my son.”

John Rinios of Tarpon Springs, who called himself Michael Xipolitas’ best friend, said, “There is nothing he wanted more than that cross. It’s all he’s talked about for a couple months. He even quit smoking cigarettes for this day.”

Michael’s 16-year-old brother, Yianni Xipolitas, also dived and said he came within five feet of the cross, adding that his brother had come close to getting it in 2006. “Next year is my turn,” Yianni Xipolitas said.

Kalliope Cortessis, 16, was selected to be the dove bearer and released the bird, a homing pigeon that returned to its trainer in New Port Richey afterward, at Spring Bayou after singing in the choir at the cathedral. “I’d always watch at the Epiphany when they let the dove go and got goose bumps,” said Cortessis, whose mother, Renee Katsaras, was the dove bearer in 1984. “I feel really special about joining my mom.”

Chris and Elbus Kellamis of North Canton, Ohio, along with their cousin, Bea Wagner, made the trip to Tarpon Springs from Venice, where they are spending a month. “As a kid, I saw a movie where they dove for the cross here, and I always wanted to see it,” said Chris Kellamis, 71. “I’m really impressed with the reverence of the occasion.”

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2006 photos

In the blink of an eye

In mere seconds, Michael Xipolitas has the cross in his hand, beating out 51 others.

TARPON SPRINGS > There it was, hanging suspended near the surface, just like in their dream. Michael Xipolitas’ eyes were wide in disbelief when he lifted up his arm and had the Epiphany cross in his grasp.

“I dreamed about it when I was in the hospital,” said his mother, Helen, who has been in and out of the hospital getting treatment for leukemia. “My son had the same dream.”

Xipolitas was in a haze when he emerged from Spring Bayou on Saturday during the 101st Epiphany celebration. As he kneeled before His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios to receive the special blessing, he was shaking, tears streaming down his wet cheeks. “It feels better than I imagined,” said Xipolitas, 18, of Tarpon Springs, who was one of 52 divers vying for the coveted cross.

Epiphany is an ancient Greek Orthodox ceremony commemorating Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River. The first one to retrieve the cross receives a blessing.

“It’s like beginning a new life,” Xipolitas said to a crowd back inside St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. The boys were still dripping with the waters of Spring Bayou, which Tarpon Springs police estimated was a balmy 75 degrees.

“I have never seen the water this warm,” said Manuel Gombos, who has been organizing Epiphany for more than three decades. Last year, nearly 55,000 people gathered to celebrate the centennial Epiphany. They huddled under blankets and wool hats to stay warm.The water was even colder in 2005, when five divers had to be treated for respiratory problems, said Donald Sayre of Tarpon Springs Fire Rescue.

But on Saturday, the morning air hung hot, steaming people who lined the downtown streets, gathered on the grass and clustered around the cathedral. Humidity was so heavy that the choir robes and police uniforms drooped, everyone’s forehead beaded with sweat.

“Our theme this year was to bring it back to the community,” Gombos said. This year’s celebration drew about 20,000 onlookers, police said.

Earlier in the morning, twin brothers Mike and Chris Kavouklis, 17, stood on the platform assessing the conditions of the bayou, nervous and clenching their fists. For their second dive, both had revised strategies. “I’m a little more confident because I know what to expect,” said Chris, who planned to keep his head underwater and his eyes open. “I got over there really quick, but I couldn’t hold my breath,” he said.

Mike was intent on getting a faster start and selecting a better dinghy, because he was in one that was overloaded and sank last year. “I was a little fazed last year. I was soaking up the moment and didn’t get a good jump,” he said. Both boys laughed at their cousin Mark Garcia, 16, a first-time diver who woke up early to do practice laps in their grandmother’s pool.

Dashing for a cross and fortune in Long Beach

In a Greek Orthodox ceremony, Southland swimmers compete to grab a crucifix and the good luck that tradition says it brings.

Speros Mantas has long known that one day he too would dive for the cross. His uncle successfully dived in Long Beach 14 years ago and caught it. His brother caught it as well, four years ago in the chilly waters of Alamitos Bay.

On Saturday, Mantas, 16, got his chance to leap into the same bay at Mother’s Beach as part of an age-old Greek Orthodox ceremony marking Epiphany. Tradition calls for a high-ranking priest to toss a cross into the water to mark Christ’s baptism. The lore goes that the young man or woman who catches it will enjoy a year of good luck.

Mantas, along with four other youths from Southern California, are vying to find the cross at this celebration held by the Greek Orthodox Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Long Beach, and hundreds of spectators from around the region have come to cheer them on.

Sofia Batshoun, 19, who has competed in school swimming and water polo matches, is intent on beating Mantas and three other boys. She has dived for the cross for four years running. Her sister won it once. The other years, boys have been the ones to hoist it into the air as hundreds on shore cheered.

Now, Mantas, Batshoun and three others wait on the dock in the chilly morning air for His Eminence Metropolitan Gerasimos to throw out the pine cross, painted gold, blue and brown. Mantas, of Anaheim, looks limber in his gray wetsuit. His face is solemn. “It would be amazing to catch it. It would be a good thing,” he says. His brother and uncle are here, along with his mother and father, all rooting for him.

Batshoun, of Garden Grove, decided to wear her sister’s pink-and-purple “good-luck suit” pulled over her own. Her bare shoulders are rounded from swimming. Asked how she prepared for the swim, she quips, “I prayed to God that he stops laughing at me and smiles on me.”

If she can’t win, she says, she is rooting for a third diver, her childhood friend, Nathaniel Coromelas, 17, from the Orange County suburb of Cypress. His grandfather has been ill, she explains, and his brother recently returned from a tour in Iraq and may have to return. “If God wants me to get it, I’ll get it. He knows what is in my future. Otherwise, I want Nathaniel to get it.”

A fourth diver, Harry Koulos, 17, of Long Beach, says this will be his last chance to catch the cross before he leaves for college. This is his fourth try. “I would think it would be a great honor,” Koulos says. But if he loses again, he has high hopes for his younger brother, 9, who plays water polo, and says he would like to return from college to dive with him.

The youngest diver this year is Nicholas Fields, 13, who came from Northridge to compete and nearly missed the ceremony because of traffic. All week, church members have been anticipating the contest and wondering who will win.

“Of course, every year, we are excited about who will win the cross,” says Voula Michail, secretary at Assumption Church. In her hometown in the Greek mountains near Albania, she says, the Epiphany event is held on the shores of the Aliakmonas river. It is an honor just to dive for the cross, she says, and the greatest honor is bestowed on the boy or girl who catches it. In Greece, she says, only boys and young men are allowed to dive. But in the United States, girls have joined the celebration.

“It’s something that’s been happening now for ages, for different generations,” says Tasia Triantos, 20, of Lakewood, who coordinated the diving. “I baby-sit for a lot of kids, and they’re like, ‘Can we dive, Can we dive?’ And I say, ‘You’ve got to be 12.’ “

Mantas’ brother, Polyvious Mantas, 21, who caught the cross four years ago, said good fortune came his way the following year. “Nothing bad happened that year,” he recalls. “I got a new job. Everything was great.”

The church elders arrive, crowding the dock around Gerasimos, who wears a gold-adorned crown. Gerasimos leads the congregation in prayer. He washes a bouquet of basil in holy water, sprinkles the crowd and tosses it into the water, part of the traditional Epiphany blessing of the waters. He lifts the cross and throws.

It sails across the water so quickly that those on the dock cannot see where it lands. The divers hit the water. Quickly, the front-runners emerge: Mantas in his wetsuit, Batshoun with her dark hair. They are head to head as they shoot toward the dock. It is over in a flash. The two swimmers appear close to colliding. Mantas’ arm shoots out. Water splashes. He lifts the cross triumphantly in the air. The crowd starts to cheer.

Within minutes, he is bending his head as Gerasimos suspends a gold cross around his neck. Later, at a feast of lamb back at the church hall, he will perform another traditional ritual: carrying the wooden cross in a basket from table to table, so that diners can kiss it and congratulate him. “I saw the shimmer off the gold, and it led me to it,” he says later. “It feels great.” Batshoun remains resolute. Next year, she vows, grinning, she will be back. “I just really enjoy doing it,” she says, “They say, no matter what, God blesses you for diving.”

Greek Orthodox men dive in Istanbul in celebration of Epiphany

Three Greek Orthodox faithful dived into the wintry waters of Istanbul’s Golden Horn on Saturday to retrieve a wooden cross in an Epiphany ceremony.

His Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, first led a liturgy at the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. George for Epiphany, the day on which the Greek Orthodox Church commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ.

His Holiness Bartholomew, who is based in Istanbul, led the congregation to the shores of the Horn, a 2.3-kilometer (4.5 mile) arm of the Bosporus waterway, for the traditional ceremony of the blessing of the waters. He threw the cross into the cold water and the three worshippers jumped in, in a contest to retrieve it.

This years’ winner was Mario Tarinas, 27, from Istanbul, who beat a father and son from Greece to reach the cross first. Tarinas kissed the cross and lifted his arm to show it off as some 300 faithful, members of Istanbul’s dwindling Greek Orthodox community and visitors from Greece, cheered and applauded. The two other competitors, Christos Koulidis and his 16-year-old son, Alex, then swam toward Tarinas to touch the cross. All three were rewarded with a chain and crucifix from Bartholomew.

The ceremony was conducted under tight police security. Turkish nationalists, who mistrust the patriarchate because of its ties to Turkey’s historical rival Greece, have disrupted similar ceremonies in the past.

The Patriarchate in Istanbul dates from the 1,100-year Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire, which collapsed when Muslim Ottoman Turks conquered the city, then called Constantinople, in 1453.

Although only a few thousand Greek Orthodox Christians now live in Turkey, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has remained in Istanbul, and has direct authority over several Greek Orthodox churches around the world.

Illuminating the ancient feast of Epiphany

Christian traditions mark Magi’s visit, burning of greens, baptism of Jesus.

According to the traditional Christian calendar, today marks “Twelfth Night,” the last day of the 12 days of Christmas. Not many people still celebrate with 12 days of gift-giving from December 25 to January 5, as in the famous Christmas carol. But many churches do observe the ancient feast of Epiphany on January 6, a holiday associated in Western churches with the coming of the Magi to honor the infant Jesus.

“The story of the wise men will be done this Sunday in Sunday school,” said the Rev. Bill King, deputy to the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. “Many churches are leaving the creche up through this Sunday.” Tonight’s the church-sanctioned time to take down Christmas decorations, King said.

“Twelfth Night was the burning of the greens; you took the Christmas wreaths down and burned them,” he said. “In the old English tradition you’d have a bonfire on Twelfth Night.”

While Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist and other Western churches celebrate the coming of the Magi to adore Jesus, the Eastern Orthodox church commemorates the baptism of Jesus on Epiphany. Icons representing the baptism of Jesus are on display, while the feast is called Theophania [in Greek].

Tonight is the Eve of Epiphany. “That’s the completion of the 12 days of Christmas,” said the Rev. Alexander Fecanin, pastor of St. Symeon Orthodox Church. “Traditionally, the 12 days of Christmas is not the 12 days before Christmas, it’s the 12 days following. We’re still singing carols.” Western churches also remember the baptism of Jesus during Epiphany and have more baptisms at that time. This Sunday will be popular for baptisms, King said.

On Saturday, Orthodox churches will have blessing-of-the-water services to celebrate the baptism of Jesus.

“Waters are blessed and people drink of the water,” said the Rev. Paul Costopoulos, dean of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Holy Trinity-Holy Cross, which will bless waters during its 8:30 a.m. service Saturday. “During the Epiphany season, throughout January, the priest visits the homes of parishioners and blesses homes with the holy water.”

In some Episcopal churches, youth dress up for Epiphany as kings and symbolically bring forth the gifts of the Magi to Jesus, gold, frankincense and myrrh. “In our home, the creche stays up until 12th night,” King said.

On Sunday, Orthodox will also celebrate the annual feast day of John the Baptist. “John the Baptist was a major player in Epiphany,” Costopoulos said. “He was the forerunner chosen by God to baptize Jesus.”

At St. Symeon Orthodox church, the 6:30 p.m. service tonight and the Saturday 10 a.m. service will include the blessing of water. “We bless the water by placing the cross in the water,” Fecanin said. “It’s the image of Christ entering the water.”

During the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, Christmas celebrations in America took place sporadically between December 6, the feast of St. Nicholas, and January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. The earlier onset of U.S. Christmas celebrations and decorations in the modern commercial era may create a sense of anxiety for the holiday to be over. After a Christmas shopping season that for many Americans begins right after Thanksgiving, people tire of the holiday season and are ready to move on.

“Epiphany is a major feast day according to the teachings of the church,” Costopoulos said. “It’s gotten out of kilter because of the secularization and commercialization of Christmas. It’s become so overwhelming, the focus is on that.”

St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Brookside observes January 7 as Christmas, following the Russian tradition. In Bethlehem, celebrations of the birth of Jesus extend to the end of January. Around the world, Christmas is celebrated as late as January 27 in the Coptic Church of Egypt. “There are different traditions, and Bethlehem picks up on each one of them,” King said.

“Epiphany was one of the earliest Christian feast days,” King said. “It celebrated the manifestation of the Christ, in Jesus, the divinity of Christ. God entering into humanity. It was god in our midst, god revealed through Jesus. That’s Epiphany, an awakening, an understanding of something different. It was only later that Christmas was chosen as December 25.”

In early church tradition, Epiphany celebrated the Nativity and the appearance of Christ at the River Jordan for baptism. Churches usually celebrate Epiphany on January 6 or the Sunday between January 2-8. The Feast of Epiphany begins a season that continues until Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, the season of preparation for Easter.

The visit of the Magi is connected to Christmas, although if the visit is historical, the Magi would likely have arrived long after the birth of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew says that when the Magi visited Herod and told him of the birth of a new King, Herod responded by ordering the slaughter of male children under 2 years old, which would suggest a long lapse of time between the appearance of the star and the arrival of the Magi.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. “The job of the church is to teach the sacred truths behind the story,” King said. “That’s our job.”

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