TARPON SPRINGS — Since the age of 6, Nicholas Souder has watched or participated in the creation of the coveted Epiphany cross.
Souder, now 24, watched as his grandfather, Bill Paskalakis, would take the block of oak or birch wood and carve the two pieces needed for the cross. Souder spent hours with Paskalakis sanding and filing the roughness out of the wood.
It was quality time for Souder and his grandfather, a Tarpon Springs High graduate and retired shop teacher at the school. They added the white paint and the decorative grooves along the edges of the cross.
Now, Souder is on his own, carving, sanding and painting the cross that will be thrown into the murky waters of Spring Bayou at the 105th Epiphany Celebration. After 40 years of making crosses, Paskalakis died in March. He was 74.
"I've seen him do the process so many times," Souder said. "I've helped him do every step of the process at least once. He was teaching me to carry it on when he wasn't around."
The blessing and throwing of the cross into the bayou is a main attraction of Epiphany, which celebrates the Baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. This year, 78 boys will dive for the cross, which is supposed to bring a life of favor to the retriever.
Held Jan. 6, the Epiphany celebration brings thousands of Greek Orthodox Christians to Tarpon Springs.
"This Holy Event is not merely a yearly symbolic re-enactment but a 'real time' transformation of nature," said the Rev. Father Michael Eaccarino, dean of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. "Therefore, we, here in the Tarpon Springs area, become recipients of the true metamorphosis of our environment. We are protected from above."
Souder understands and appreciates the importance of the cross to the celebration. In 2003 and 2004, he dived for the cross.
While he didn't retrieve it, he did win the divers' essay contest both years. That accomplishment made his grandfather, who also dived for the cross, extremely proud, he said.
Souder graduated from Tarpon High in 2004. In 2009, he graduated from the University of South Florida with a music performance degree. A stellar percussionist, he now teaches and performs all over the country.
The cross for the 2011 Epiphany has been carved, and Souder is still using a file to get at some of the rough spots. He will then drill a half-inch hole down the cross' core and pour in lead so that it sinks when it hits the water. He also will rout the edges of the cross for a decorative effect.
Fighting the soreness in his hands and neck from bending over the cross that's secured in a vise grip, Souder will sand some more. He will add eight to 10 coats of white paint, then lettering, before putting on a clear coat.
The entire process can take several months. No two crosses are ever the same.
"It's a very detailed process, but I want to do the very best job I possibly can," Souder said. "It's an honor to make the cross, and I know it would make my grandfather proud. So it makes me proud to be doing it."
Two crosses are made each year. One year when the cross was thrown, no one could find it in the dark waters. In case that happens again, a second cross is waiting in the wings.
Elaine Sarris, Souder's mother, said it was always her father's plan for her son to continue the cross-making legacy.
"It's so special and it means so much, and that's what Dad always wanted," said Sarris, 49, a 1979 graduate of Tarpon Springs High. "Getting to make the cross all those years meant so much to him because he knew it would mean so much to the young man who got it."
Contact Demorris A. Lee at email@example.com or (727) 455-4174.