TARPON SPRINGS — Epiphany City was in full swing Monday.
City officials met with special guests from the Greek islands while clergy gave the annual blessing of the fleet.
"We're ready. The planning has been very smooth," said event co-spokeswoman Johanna Kossifidis as she fielded call after call on her cell phone Monday morning.
Between 8,000 and 10,000 people are expected for the city's 103rd Epiphany celebration today, which begins with services at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral and ends with an eight-hour Glendi.
In between, 65 young men will dive to retrieve this year's Epiphany cross. The teen who finds the cross will receive a special blessing that is supposed to bring him a year of prosperity.
"The cross is a symbol of our faith,'' said the cathedral's Father Michael Eaccarino. "It's through the cross that the resurrection came, giving us salvation, leaving us with an empty tomb, and that, for us as Christians, is what our lives are all about.''
Orthodox Christians celebrate Epiphany as the manifestation of God through Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River.
"The river Jordan changed its course, totally against nature, so it shows what really did happen with Christ's baptism — all of nature was transformed," Eaccarino said.
On Monday morning, city officials were meeting with a contingent from Kalymnos, one of Tarpon's sister cities.
Many of Tarpon's original sponge divers came from the Greek island, which also celebrates Epiphany.
The groups exchanged gifts before heading to the Heritage Center at Craig Park to plant an olive tree.
The tree symbolizes the alliance between Tarpon and Kalymnos, said Mayor Beverley Billiris.
"We both feel our relationship will grow as the olive tree grows," Billiris said.
The group then met with the Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce about ways to promote economic exchanges between the two cities, and met with officials from St. Petersburg College about the possibility of creating a foreign exchange program.
Around noon, Father Ioannis Karokos, assistant priest at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, arrived at the Sponge Docks for the annual blessing of the fleet.
The blessing is an unofficial start to the Epiphany celebration, Kossifidis said.
Karokos walked up and down the docks, dipping basil leaves into holy water and flicking the leaves to anoint fishermen, their boats, stores, shopkeepers and visitors.
"When they found the true (crucifixion) cross of Christ, they found basil growing around it," Karokos said, explaining the significance of the herb.
Greek residents kissed a cross held by Karokos as they received his blessing.
Minutes after the priest blessed a sponge boat named G&A, the boat narrowly avoided being hit during a car accident on Dodecanese Avenue that pushed a Buick up onto the docks.
"The boat was saved," said deckhand Andreas Demopoulos, 19.
Was it the blessing?
"I believe so," he said.
Sponge boat Capt. Taso Karistinos said he was hoping for similar good fortune for his boat, the Anastasi, which means resurrection, he said.
"See if I catch some more sponges this year," he said with a smile.
Rita Farlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4162.