The Holiday season in Crete is a wonderful combination of traditional festivities and non-commercial authenticity. There is a great sense of simplicity and purity; throughout Greece, the days around Christmas and New Years are not so much about shopping for gifts but really much more about connecting with family, friends, community, and faith.
Unlike the holiday season in other countries, it also does not come to an end after New Year’s Day. All over Greece, it is Epiphany which brings the holiday season to a close. Epiphany is an extremely significant religious holiday. And it is celebrated in a joyous and spectacular way. It is something worth experiencing up close, and especially on Crete. This is the twelfth day of Christmas – like in the song.
Blessing of the Waters Ceremony – Epiphany
A Holiday with Three Names
This beautiful holiday actually goes by three names: “Theophania,” which means “God shining forth”, “Ta Fota,” which simply means “The Lights,” and of course “Epiphany.”
The holiday is a celebration of the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan. More specifically, it commemorates the revelation of God. The bible records that, as Jesus rose up from the water, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit came to Jesus as a dove, and rested upon Him. The voice of God then came from heaven, saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The “Theofania” also refers to the revelation of the Holy Trinity – the voice of the Father coming from heaven, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as a dove.
It is also called “Ta Fota” – the “lights”, as this is the day that the light of Christ illuminated – enlightened – the world.
Light and Water
This is a celebration of light. But it’s also a commemoration of the baptism of Jesus by St. John. As Jesus blessed the waters of the river Jordan, Orthodox priests bless all waters. It’s actually a 2-day event.
When is Epiphany?
Epiphany is celebrated on the 6th of January. But celebrations begin on the eve of Epiphany, the 5th. Just as they do on Christmas Eve and on New Year’s eve day, children come house to house singing a special carol. This one announces the good news of the baptism of Christ. At church, there is a “mikros agiasmos” of the waters – a smaller blessing, in anticipation of the greater blessing the next day. In preparation for the Epiphany, priests go house to house with this holy water, blessing the home and everyone in it, and offering the cross from them to kiss. The devout also fast in preparation for Epiphany.
The Day of Epiphany
January brings Crete’s coldest days. But this is no deterrent for the faithful. There is joy and anticipation in the air as people set off for church.
With them, they have bottles and jars from home. This is to collect the holy water that will later be distributed in large vessels, and to bring it back to their homes. In preparation to receive the holy water, many do not drink anything at all so that the first water that touches their lips is blessed.
Now, we come to the most dramatic part of the celebration of Epiphany- the actual blessing of the waters. Epiphany is celebrated at all Orthodox Churches, wherever they may be. But congregations near a body of water – a river, a lake, or the sea – will go there in a joyous procession, led by the priest, deacons, altar boys – all in splendid and opulent vestments – and church officials carrying banners.
When all have gathered at the water’s edge, the priest will bless the waters. Of course, in Crete this will in many cases be the sea. In this case, there are special preparations, and an extraordinary spectacle.
The congregation will not gather at a shallow shore, but rather at a dock or promenade, where the water is deep. Sometimes, a boat will be waiting. Now the brave divers – usually young men, but in some congregations there are now young women as well – either board the boat with the priest or stand beside him at the edge of the harbor.
The Blessing of the Waters
Often, the skies will be bright and there will be wind blowing – it’s a dramatic day and the weather usually cooperates. Anticipation grows as a hush falls over the crowd. Then, the priest hurls the cross out into the water as far as he can. The swimmers dive in, and a race ensues through the icy waters to retrieve the cross.
At the moment the cross is retrieved, the priest then releases a dove into the sky. This represents the Holy Spirit, as was present at the baptism of Christ.
Receiving the Blessing at Church on Epiphany
The one who retrieves the cross receives a special blessing, thought to bring good luck throughout the year to come.
After the brave swimmers return and towel off in the chilly air, the congregation returns to church. A great vat of holy water is by the altar, with a large branch of basil. The church fills with its sweet scent as the priest dips the basil branch into the holy water. The congregation lines up and the priest blesses each of them in turn, making the sign of the cross on their foreheads and shoulders with a gentle strike of the wet basil, as the bend to kiss the cross.
Now, everyone fills vessels with holy water. At home, every member of the household will drink it, including of course any animals. Then it is sprinkled throughout the corners of the house, and even given to the plants.
Celebrating Epiphany in Crete
On this island of seafarers, Epiphany is an especially significant holiday. The seas and boats are also blessed. According to tradition, there is a ban on sailing in the days before Epiphany, as it is thought that the blessing of the waters will calm the turbulent seas of winter, so they can again leave port to sail on calmer waters.
(And there is yet another reason to celebrate Epiphany: the day marks the end of the mischief of the “Kalikantzari”. These small goblins of Greek folklore are said to arrive at Christmas and disappear at Epiphany, when the light of God and the blessed waters drive them once again underground. Some even attribute the rough seas to their mischief, but generally they are thought to be a domestic nuisance.)
In Crete, Epiphany is a triple celebration. The priest throws the cross into the water not once, but three times – for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Three swimmers will then have the chance to receive a special blessing for retrieving the cross.
It is particularly wonderful to celebrate Epiphany in one of Crete’s lovely cities, to see the cross thrown into waters of Chania’s Venetian harbor, for example.
Enjoy Winter Holidays in Crete
The holiday season is a wonderful time to visit Crete. The island is blessed with a mild climate and you may well enjoy many days of warm winter weather and plenty of sunshine – perfect for driving around and exploring the island.
Another great advantage of a winter holiday in Crete is that you will have the island to yourself. There are very few tourists, and this is an ideal time to truly connect with the authentic culture and wonderful people of Crete. Experiencing first hand beautiful rituals like Epiphany will add meaning to your travels and give you a sense of connection to this marvellous island.