Posted by: Daniel Cisek, Deputy Press Attaché
In northern states in the U.S., members of “Polar Bear Clubs” jump into icy-cold lakes and rivers each winter to celebrate the cold, have fun, and raise money for charities. The largest annual event takes place in Maryland to raise funds for the Special Olympics. I’ve never participated myself, but I’ve always been fascinated by the site of burly men (and a few brave women) in swimming suits plunging into the water in the middle of January.
Imagine my surprise to learn that similar events take place in Ukraine, but for a very different reason. Every year on January 19th, Orthodox Christians celebrate one of their most significant holidays – the baptism of Jesus Christ, or Epiphany. This holiday is a reminder of the baptism of Jesus Christ in the river of Jordan on his 30th birthday. In the Orthodox Church, Epiphany has been lavishly celebrated from the time of “Ancient Rus.”
On this day, the Church performs water blessings, freeing the water of all sins, as they believe Jesus did by plunging into the waters of the river Jordan. The priest blesses the water by submerging the cross three times. Those who seek individual cleansing and blessing then enter the water through a cross-shaped opening in the ice. They are supposed to submerge their bodies completely three times, while crossing themselves and saying a prayer.
Not even the freezing temperatures of winter can deter those who believe in the ritual. It is believed that they shouldn’t fear the ice-cold water, as it will heal them and revive their bodies, but only if they have said a prayer and truly believe in the powers of the Epiphany.
In Kyiv and all over Ukraine, the tradition has been gaining popularity in the last few years. The main ceremony in the capital takes place in Hydropark, on the banks of the Dnieper River. The event is fascinating to watch, so the embassy filmed it last year – you can watch the video here.
According to tradition, January 19th is one of the coldest days of the year. Believers also rely on the day’s weather to predict the summer and the results of the year’s harvest. For example, a cold and sunny day means a dry summer ahead, while a snowy or foggy day is a sure sign of a rich harvest. As a rule, the bigger the snowflakes, the better the harvest. (This is reminiscent of Groundhog Day in the United States – on February 2 if it’s a sunny day and a groundhog sees its shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter, but if it is cloudy, spring will come early. Groundhog Day is also the name of a funny movie starring Bill Murray about a reporter who keeps waking up to relive the same day, Groundhog Day at the official festivities in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.)
Perhaps the saddest part of the day for children and adults alike is the fact that Epiphany represents the official end of the Christmas and New-Year holidays in this part of the world. It’s an unusual way to mark the end of the season, but for some, a very important occasion. I like to watch, but for now I’ll stay on the sidelines and let other people take the plunge.