Greece celebrates Epiphany with traditional ‘blessing of the waters’ ceremonies

Greece celebrated the religious holiday of Epiphany on Saturday with the traditional “blessing of the waters” ceremony at the country’s countless ports, harbours, lakes and reservoirs, with the nation’s political leadership also on hand at Church masses and at the water’s side.

The most prominent service was again celebrated at the port of Piraeus’ Metropolitan Cathedral and seafront, with Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Christodoulos officiating at the service, attended by President of the Republic Karolos Papoulias, Defence Minister Evangelos Meimarakis, who represented the Government, main opposition PASOK leader George Papandreou, former premier Costas Simitis and dozens of other government officials, MPs and local government office-holders. Most political leaders on hand expressed their best wishes for 2007.

On his part, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis attended Epiphany services near his home in the east Attica coastal town of Rafina, where he expressed his best seasons for the New Year, while emphasising the need for close ties between parents and children.

His Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomeos officiated at a similar service in Constantinople [today’s Istanbul], the venerable Patriarchate’s seat.

Epiphany celebrations in Greece and Cyprus

Epiphany is a day full of symbolisms and traditions, during which our Church celebrates Jesus’ baptism in Jordan River by John the Baptist.

According to our popular tradition this is the day that the Elves, who have caused much discomfort to people during the holidays, leave the Earth. The celebration of this day has a particular protocol. In Athens, Mayor Bakoyannis will be present at the ceremony for the benediction of waters which will take place on Thursday at 10.30 in Dexameni in Kolonaki. After that, at 11.30, the Mayor will attend the ceremony taking place at the swimming pool of the National Gymnastics Club.

The feast of Epiphany is one of the oldest celebrations of the Christian Church. It was established in the 2nd century and it refers to the revelation of the Holy Trinity during Christ’s baptism. That is when the Holy Spirit appeared as a dove and sat on Jesus, while from above the voice of God was indicating Him as His beloved Son and His Chosen on Earth. It was established to be celebrated on January 6th, probably in order to coincide with the idolatrous celebrations of the early Christian years and to replace them.

During the first two centuries, the Christians also celebrated the Birth of Christ on the same day, but since the mid 4th century, when Pope Julius set December 25th as Christmas day, the feast of Epiphany has been celebrated separately. The Orthodox Church performs on this day the benediction of waters in the sea, in lakes, in rivers, even in water tanks. The name “Illuminations” (“Fota” in Greek), which we commonly use, has been established because on the day before the Epiphany the Church used to baptize the catechumen.

For all Greeks this day is connected with the casting of the Cross in the sea and with the effort of the bold ones to retrieve it from the – frozen this time of year – waters. The joy of the person who manages to get to the Cross first is a great one and the blessings of the priest accompany him for the whole year. On the day before the Epiphany, the neighborhood priest passes by the houses of his cogeneration in order to perform the customary blessing. It is the day that … the Elves fear the most – if we want to turn from our religious tradition to our folk one.

For more than two weeks the Elves are on Earth and they bother people with the capers they are pulling. During all these days they try to hurt people, but they do not succeed – clumsy as they are. The priest’s appearance in the houses on Epiphany day gives them the… finishing stroke and they disappear for once more in the bowels of the Earth. This is how the circle of tradition restarts until next Christmas when they will climb up again…

Epiphany in Greece > The Kalikantzaroi

Epiphany in Greece is known as Theofania or Fota. The first sanctification of the Epiphany (The Enlightenment) takes place in church on the eve of the holiday. Afterwards, the priest goes from house to house holding a cross and a basil branch. As he walks through each house, he uses the basil to sprinkle (bless) all the areas of the home.

An old custom in Crete, which is almost forgotten today, was the preparation of the fotokoliva (boiled wheat with peas) on the eve of Epiphany. The fotokoliva was eaten by the people, but they also fed it to their livestock, which was believed to insure good health and fortune in the homes.

The big sanctification takes place the following day, January 6, the day of the Epiphany.

A long procession is formed and follows whatever road that leads to a body of water – the sea, a river or even a reservoir. Up in front of the procession are the cherub icons, followed by the priests dressed in their best holiday splendor, then the VIPs, followed by all the people. In the bigger cities, the procession becomes more elaborate with the addition of music and military contingents.

At the end of the sanctification ceremony a priest throws a cross into the water, thus blessing the waters. Then, those who dare – mostly the younger people of the village – jump in the usually icy water and compete in retrieving the cross. The one who brings the cross up to the surface will enjoy good luck and health for the entire year.

KALIKANTZAROI, THE CHRISTMAS SPRITES > Kalikantzaroi, or the Christmas Sprites, are small blackish and hairy creatures, with long arms and tail, who reside in the bowels of the earth. With a big saw, they compete to cut down the huge wooden stake which holds the earth in place. But the column is very thick and the sawing seems to go on forever.

Right before Christmas, however, they almost accomplish their mission and the column seems ready to fall. Overjoyed by their almost successful effort, but also fearful that the earth will topple over on their heads, they rush to the top to bother and annoy the people.

Thousands of these creatures come up to the surface from every hole or crack they can find. However, they are very much afraid of the light, so they hide during the day. But at night – that’s when they strike! As soon as it’s dark, they scramble from their hiding places to taunt and menace people. Because they are small, some even very tiny, they can get into the homes through chimneys, keyholes, even from the little cracks on windows and doors.

They enjoy lollygagging around in places like oil vats, frying pans, oily pots and dishes, and they really get a kick out of soiling food with their filthy fingernails and leaving their excrement all over the place. About the only good thing that can be said about these nasty pests is that they never steal anything – oh, but what a mess!

Their name comes from the adjective, kalos, meaning good, and kantharos, the word for beetle. The beginning of the myth regarding the Christmastide Sprites can be found in ancient times. The people of that time believed that when the souls in Hades found the door open they would come up to our world and make the rounds among people without any restrictions.

Much later the Byzantines celebrated with music, song and masquerading. Because the people hid their faces they were shameless and behaved boldly. They would bother people on the street, and go into the homes uninvited, pestering the people by continuously asking for sausages and sweets. The homeowners would slam the doors and shut the windows, but the persistent masqueraders would always find a point of entry – like coming down the chimney.

All this activity would occur during the 12 days of Christmas and on the Epiphany. Then, after the big sanctification all would become calm again as the people settled back down into their normal routine.

Today, the Kalikantzaroi disappear during the celebration of the lights, after the waters are blessed by the priests. As those pesky little creatures depart, you can hear them saying: “Leave we shall, because the crazy priest has arrived with his incense burner and his holy water sprinkler . . .”

Greek Carols for Christmas, New Year and Epiphany

A very old custom which remains today practically unchanged is Christmas Carols, which is called Kalanda [or Calanda] in Greek. Children, in groups of two or more, still make the rounds of houses singing carols, usually accompanied by the triangle or guitars, accordions or harmonicas.

The children go from house to house, knock on doors and ask: “shall we sing them?” If the homeowner’s answer is yes, the kids sing their favourite carols for several minutes before finishing up with the wish, “And for the next year, many happy returns”. Years ago the homeowners offered the children holiday sweets and pastries, but today they usually give them some money.

The carols are sung on the eves of Christmas, New Year and Epiphany, and they are different for each holiday.

The Greek word Calanda stems from the Latin, calenda, which translates as “the beginning of the month”. It is believed that the history of caroling goes deep into the past and connects with ancient Greece. In fact, they have even found carols written in those distant past days which are similar to the ones sung today. In ancient times the word for carols was Eiresioni, and children of that era held an effigy of a ship which depicted the arrival of the ancient god Dionysos. Other times they held an olive or laurel branch decorated with red and white threads, on which they would tie the offerings of the homeowners.

This Eiresioni song from the Homeric period can still be heard today – with small changes – in the carols of Thrace perfecture in Greece >

In this house we came of the rich-landlord

May its doors open for the wealth to roll in

The wealth and happiness and desired peace should enter

And may its clay jugs fill with honey, wine and oil

And the kneading tub with rising dough.

EPIPHANY CAROLS >
Today is the lights and the enlightment
The happiness is big and the sanctification
Down the Jordan River
Sits our Lady the Blessed Virgin Mary
She carries an organ, a candle she holds
And pleads with St. John.
St. John lord and Baptist
Baptize this divine child of mine
I shall ascend to the heavens
To gather roses and incense
Good day, good day
Good day to you master and the missus.

Greece > “Kladaria” (the brushwood event)

“Kladaria” is the name of one of the customs which relate to the twelve-day-period from Christmas to Epiphany.

The necessary preparations, however, start as early as October. More specifically, on the next day of the religious feast of Aghios Dimitrios [Saint Dimitrios], i.e. on 27th of October, children and teenagers provide for the raw material of this event, they run into the fields and the mountain slopes in order to collect brushwood and dead herbs. They mainly look for cedar branches as they have a special scent. The brushwood is stored in a dry place and remains there until it loses its moisture and dries up.

On 23rd of December, the preparations start as early as midday. The brushwood is piled up in huge heaps in the open space where this rite is going to take place. The oldest inhabitant of the village lights the branches in the evening. Then, the locals form a dancing ring around the fire. In some regions, men with bells hanging off their body turn around the fire thus lending a character of an ancient Greek, Bacchic event to these ritual ceremonies which along with the scent of cedars create a very special atmosphere. In some regions of Voio, the branches light up during the Carnival period, or more specifically, on Cheese-Fare Sunday.

The customs of Cephalonia, Greece, on the day of the Epiphany

New Year’s Day puts an end to the stress caused by various festivities, obligations, hectic preparations and religious rituals.

During this period of relaxation, hobgoblins, known as “Kalikantzaroi” in Greek, pop up and take the chance to get into mischief in the towns and villages they wander around. According to local tradition, they look like young children and are called “pagana”, pixies. The women of Cephalonia island burn incense at the front door of their houses and make the sign of the cross over it three times in order to exorcise these spirits.

On Cephalonia, the solemn blessing of the waters takes place on the eve of the Epiphany. Before priest’s arrival, the women take the ashes of the fireplace or the wood heater out of the house.

On the day of the Epiphany, January 6th, the local women knead bread which is also known as “Fotitsa”. The term “Fota” or “Theophania” is synonym of the word Epiphany in Greek.

Greeks using SMS Festive Holiday wishes

Text messages were popular among well-wishers again this year with 82.6 million messages sent on the Vodafone network from December 24 to January 1.

During the same period, there were 45.9 million text messages sent by TIM Hellas customers, a rise of 17 percent from last year.

On New Year’s Day, 15.2 million messages were sent by Cosmote users, an annual increase of 13 percent.

That’s what I call Communication! 🙂

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