TARPON SPRINGS — Thick fog obscured much of the Tampa Bay region Sunday morning, and meteorologists had warned of rain in the afternoon.
But as it usually does, the sun shone on Tarpon Springs' annual Epiphany celebration. Under clear skies, 47 boys dove for the cross during the city's 107th annual celebration of Epiphany, and first-time diver Vassilios Harding, 16, of Tarpon Springs retrieved it from the waters of Spring Bayou.
According to former Epiphany dove bearer Kaliope Hatzileris, funky weather that almost miraculously clears is a regular element of the city's Jan. 6 celebrations.
"Call it divine," said Hatzileris, 23. "Call it whatever you want. But it's always that way.
"It's a good sign," she added. "The Holy Spirit is always here."
Before the morning Epiphany services began, two Tarpon Springs boys stood on a platform overlooking 10 anchored dinghies in Spring Bayou.
This is the last year that Yanni Evans and Anthony Skandaliaris, both 18, will participate in the Epiphany cross dive, which is for Greek boys between the ages of 16 and 18. Getting a glimpse of the water has been their predive ritual.
Skandaliaris stuck a toe in the water. At 65 degrees, the bayou wasn't as cold as last year.
"When you jump in, you feel the shock of the cold," Evans recalled from his previous dives. "But when you get in the boat, your adrenalin is running so fast you don't feel it."
The cold water can steal your breath away, said fellow three-time diver Jonathan Pajak, 18, of St. Petersburg. But this year the weather was balmy compared to last year — in the mid-70s — and the dive came to a quicker conclusion.
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The threat of rain prompted organizers late last week to move the Glendi, an hourslong Greek festival that follows the cross dive, indoors. People packed the Spanos Pappas Community Center Theophilos Hall for Greek food, folk dancing and socializing.
For George and Lenore Kapetanis, the Glendi would have been more enjoyable at the roomier outdoor location of Craig Park, adjacent to the bayou.
"Beautiful day, it turns out," said George Kapetanis, 63, a New Port Richey resident.
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Around noon Sunday, the 47 divers stood outside St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral as parents clustered around to take photos of their boys.
It was hard to tell who was more nervous, the parents or the divers.
Austin Aysh, 16, waited for his first dive.
"Whoever is destined to have the blessing each year is the one who retrieves it," said his mother, 39-year-old Tsambika Aysh. "I hope that whoever needs it the most is the one who gets it this year — and every year."
The nerves had vanished for parents Tom and Eleftheria Lake. Their son, Alexi, was declared one of last year's four cross retrievers.
On top of a year of good luck, Alexi has experienced a deepening of faith, his father said.
"His faith has matured," said Tom Lake, 57. "He got the message from God."
In the crowd, Theophilos Mangos lifted his 4-year-old son, Saki, to see the divers.
"Hopefully, he'll be a diver someday," said Mangos, 38, of Tarpon Springs.
"This is the most blessed day of the year," he added. "It's part of his spiritual life."
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Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll was among those observing Epiphany events in Tarpon Springs.
Spectators came from as far away as New York, Denver and Canada. J.P. Puette, 67, of Hollister, Calif., decided to stop by St. Nicholas while in town for a wedding.
"I'm Episcopalian and I know it's Epiphany, but I don't think God is Episcopalian. We just wanted to come and worship," Puette said.
Richard Palatine, a Chicago snowbird who winters in Fort Myers, said this is his first Epiphany. He and his Greek wife are in town with a group from their church.
"You don't see a lot of this up in Chicago," he said. "I think it's beautiful. The Greeks still do a lot of old-world pageantry. It's very unique in the U.S."
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Sisters Nickolette Mott, 51, and Tula Koulianos, 55, of Tarpon Springs began their Epiphany observance Sunday morning by lighting candles in the foyer of St. Nicholas.
"We pray for the world, our family, our president, to keep us safe and healthy and away from harm," Koulianos said.
The women have a special connection to Epiphany. Koulianos' daughter Irene was dove bearer in 2008 and Mott's 22-year-old daughter Kaliope was dove bearer when she was 13.
The honor of being dove bearer is bestowed each year on a female member of the St. Nicholas choir. The girl chosen carries a white dove during the procession to Spring Bayou and releases it over the water to symbolize the Holy Spirit.
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A Largo artist stretched a blue bed sheet across an easel outside the Glendi, the Greek festival that caps the Epiphany celebrations. Paul Wislotski encouraged people to doodle on the sheet, a gift intended for the cross retriever.
"If we give him something creative, we give him a little piece of ourselves," said Wislotski, 53.
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Palm Harbor resident Helen Spanos, 49, attends the celebration every year, but spent Sunday scouting the events in anticipation of her son's first dive next year.
Tarpon's Epiphany has grown into a popular event, said Spanos' son, 15-year-old Dino Siandris. But he thinks organizers have worked hard recently to help participants understand its deeper meaning.
Says his mother: "It's really nice to see young people get so excited about something spiritual and cultural."
Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or [email protected]