The Epiphany

On January 6, the last day of the festive season, Greeks celebrate the Epiphany, the baptism of Christ by Saint John the Baptist in the Jordan River. We call it Θεοφάνια (Theophania) or Φώτα (Fota) – the Feast of Lights.

Celebrations start the day before, on the 12th day of Christmas. It is a day of fasting – the devout don’t eat meat, fish or dairy products, and not even olive oil is allowed. In Crete they make a special dish called Παπούδια (Papoudia) or Φωτοκόλυβα (Fotokolyva): wheat is boiled with different dried pulses such as lentils, chickpeas and beans, which they eat with salt, bread and maybe an onion and a few olives. They also used to  feed this to their chickens and other livestock.

After the morning church service, priests go around the houses in their parish in order to bless them by sprinkling holy water around the rooms. They are also asked to go and bless shops and offices and, in the countryside, stables and livestock. This is known as Μικρός Αγιασμός  (mikros agiasmos) or small blessing and, in the old days, it was thought to chase away the Kallikanzaroi, the malevolent gnomes who come out of their holes to plague households over the Christmas period. Now they flee before the priest, and disappear for the rest of the year. Until next Christmas!
Today also those who have burned the Χριστόξυλο (Christ-wood)  during the twelve days of Christmas will gather the ashes and spread them around the house, stables and fields to exorcise evil spirits.

 

 

The next morning, January 6, after a special service, a procession is formed through towns, starting at the church and leading to the sea, a river, or even a reservoir.
The priests lead, followed by the the local authorities, the villagers or townspeople, schoolchildren and, in large towns, the army. Sometimes there is a band. The size and brilliance of this procession is in accordance with the size of the town, the most impressive ceremonies taking place in ports. In the port of Pireas, the procession is attended by members of the government.
When the procession reaches the water, the priests recite a blessing, and white doves are released. Then a large cross is thrown in the sea, to symbolize the blessing of the waters. A band of local men,  the Βουτιχτάδες  (voutihtades – divers) plunge into the icy waters to retrieve it. It is considered both a great honour and a sign of good luck to be the one who brings back the cross to the priest.
The church bells ring, the ships’ sirens boom. The faithful drink a few sips of holy water, and take some home to bless their houses and livestock.

 

 

This ceremony symbolizes cleansing, purifying and, in a dimension that has its roots in ancient, pre-Christian times, riddance from demons.

During the Epiphany, other customs are revived that go back to Dionysian festivals or to the Turkish occupation.
Groups of people, wearing costumes and masks and holding wooden swords and bells, wander the streets or go from house to house singing and demanding money in return for chasing away evil spirits. The costumes and routines vary from place to place, as does the name of this custom. Μωμόγεροι (Momogeroi), Ραγκουτσάρια (ragoutsaria) , Ρουγκατσάρια (rougatsaria) are all different manifestations of this tradition.
In the town of Galatitsa in Halkidiki, they even construct a camel, activated by six men, to commemorate the 19th century story of the abduction of a beautiful young girl by the son of the local Turkish official. Her fiancé and his friends thought up the camel costume with which they gained entry into the Turkish household, hiding the girl inside the camel to sneak her out and back home where she married her intended before the Turks could get her back!

In some places, there is a custom called ‘the washing of the icons’: people take the icons they have in their houses and wash them in the nearest river.

Later, everyone repairs home for another festive meal, usually of pork, which can be baked with celery, or with quinces. On the island of Skyros, housewives make traditional pies filled with spiced pumpkin, called μαρμαρίτες (marmarites). They bake them on tiles inside the fireplace, taking care they are not stolen by the Kallikanzaroi, who have the ability to make their arms as long as they like, and can thus reach down the chimney to steal the pies!

 

11 thoughts on “The Epiphany

  1. Such a lot of fascinating customs connected to one event. Epiphany is obviously an important time in Greece, and one that involves family get-togethers and much preparation of special, vegetarian foods. I can see a loose connection here to the old pagan tradition of wassailing in England. The need to drive out evil spirits on January 6th is an odd coincidence. In wassailing, the evil spirits were driven from the apple trees. Thank you for a really interesting post. 😀

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  2. So interesting , our Epiphany is so different as we associate it with the visit by the Three Wise Men to Baby Jesus , and not so much with St. John’s Baptism as you do being Orthodox . And we don’t fast , we do it only on Easter.
    I’m loving to learn about Greece through what you write .
    Wishing you a Good 2016 🙂

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  3. Fascinating blog post on a fascinating tradition. But when you write the following sentence: Today also those who have burned the Χριστόξυλο (Christ-wood) during the twelve days of Christmas will gather the ashes and spread them around the house, stables and fields to exorcise evil spirits. …

    … I wonder: Can I trust your advice? Will all evil spirits really disappear? 🙂

    Have you tested this yourself?

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  4. They really do know how to celebrate. I love the idea of blessing the livestock as well as the people. In our house we mark Epiphany by taking down the Christmas cards. 😀

    One of those Kallikanzaroi would be very useful in our house, where many of the cupboards are too high for me to reach without climbing a ladder.

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