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Greek islands celebrate Epiphany

- by Archimedes

Greek islands celebrate Epiphany.

Winter visitors to the Greek islands will see Greeks celebrating ancient traditions during Theofania (Epiphany) this weekend. The baptism of Jesus is much celebrated in Greece as swimmers jump into the winter waters of the Greek islands to retrieve a holy cross. The Greek Festival of Epiphany, or 'Blessing of the Waters', is held every year on January 6.

Daring young Greek men brave the chilly water to dive for a cross, blessed by a priest before being thrown into the water. The first swimmer to recover the cross is said to have good luck for the coming year.

But the ancient custom of the Greek Orthodox Church is not the only example of celebrations across Greece and the Greek Islands at this time of year. The day long festival can also feature the blessing of boats and ships, and includes entertainment, music, dancing and feasting.

One of the most celebrated traditions of the Theofania holiday is the 'kalanda' or carol singing, often by children in return for small amount of money or for sweets.

Of all the many types of kalanda, Patmos lays claim to be the Greek Island that most keeps their original religious character. Their carols are about the creation of water in Genesis and of Jesus Christ's baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan river.

In the Thessalia region groups of people put on fancy dress before going from door to door singing carols. Costumes usually include those of bride and groom, a priest, an old man, a doctor and an 'arkoudiarides' – originally street entertainers that paraded dancing bears in rural areas.

Villagers in north-eastern Greece wear painted masks in order to banish evil spirits. Masked men claim to cast out evil spirits from passers by for their rewards for casting the evil spirits away.

An on the peninsula of Halkidiki there is the custom known locally as the 'fotarades' where someone dresses up in a 'talagani', the traditional cloak of a shepherd and leads a dance around a sausage. The other dancers wave wooden swords to prevent anyone stealing the sausage. After a day of carol singing young men perform more traditional dances.

These customs and traditions dating back to ancient times in Greece but are brought to life again each year when religious devotions are combined with street party fun and games to commemorate not only the baptism of Jesus Christ but also, according to popular belief, the annual banishment of mischievous goblins or 'kalikantzaroi'.