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Dig into the sights, sounds and food of Epiphany in Tarpon Springs

The largest celebration in the Western Hemisphere draws more than 20,000 to the Greek community.
In the weeks leading up to Epiphany, Hellas Bakery in Tarpon Springs will sell hundreds of loaves of the sweet yeasted New Year’s Day bread called vasilopita. There is a coin hidden inside the loaf, and like the cross divers, the finder of the coin is endowed with extra blessings.
In the weeks leading up to Epiphany, Hellas Bakery in Tarpon Springs will sell hundreds of loaves of the sweet yeasted New Year’s Day bread called vasilopita. There is a coin hidden inside the loaf, and like the cross divers, the finder of the coin is endowed with extra blessings. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Jan. 4

For more than 100 years, the Greek community of Tarpon Springs has put on a celebration of Epiphany that is now the largest in the Western Hemisphere.

Held on Jan. 6, it starts with services and a procession in town when a member of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral choir releases a dove into the sky. A church bishop blesses the waters and throws a white cross into Spring Bayou, where an array of young men plunge into the water to be the first to find it.

Why does diving into icy waters raise hopes for enlightenment? Here’s some history.

The Western Christian tradition of the holiday focuses on the Maji, the three wise men who brought gifts to the infant Jesus on Epiphany, celebrated Jan. 6. In the Orthodox Church, which is practiced by the many Greeks in Tarpon Springs, the celebration marks the day Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist at the Jordan River. The Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a dove, and the voice of God spoke: “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased.”

At the 2022 Epiphany celebration, then-16-year-old cross diver Alexander Makris emerged from Spring Bayou with the white cross that tradition says will bring him a year of blessings. There will be 68 cross divers this year.
At the 2022 Epiphany celebration, then-16-year-old cross diver Alexander Makris emerged from Spring Bayou with the white cross that tradition says will bring him a year of blessings. There will be 68 cross divers this year. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

So there’s symbolism with every step of the Epiphany festivities that date back to 1906 in Tarpon Springs. It has been visited by the Prime Minister of Greece and typically draws more than 20,000 people.

His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros, primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the highest leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, does the honor of tossing the cross each year. He will lead the procession from the church to Spring Bayou. Elena Gonatos, 17, of Tarpon Springs has been chosen to release a white dove alongside the archbishop before the Epiphany cross is thrown into the water. Tradition says the diver who emerges grasping the cross is rewarded with a year of blessings.

After a two-year pandemic pause, the cathedral’s Glendi festival will return to close out the day with Greek dancing, music and food at the Spanos-Pappas Community Center and shows by Levendia, the award-winning Greek dance troupe. There will be schoolchildren in traditional costumes, choir members and Greek folk dance groups from throughout the Tampa Bay area.

At the 2022 Epiphany service, Renee Dragoudsis lights a candle at an altar while her son Paris touches his traditional clothing at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon Springs.
At the 2022 Epiphany service, Renee Dragoudsis lights a candle at an altar while her son Paris touches his traditional clothing at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon Springs. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times (2022) ]

Leading up to the festival, bakeries like Hellas on Dodecanese Boulevard sell hundreds of loaves of vasilopita, a sweet yeasted New Year’s Day bread scented with orange. There is a coin hidden inside the loaf, and like the cross divers, the finder of the coin is endowed with extra blessings, said Johanna Gatzoulis, co-chairperson of the church’s Epiphany celebration.

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“It’s a fresh new year, everything is getting blessed,” Gatzoulis said.

For the first time, the Glendi will blend in the modern twist of food trucks, serving gyros, souvlaki and desserts. The food truck Meli Greek Street Donuts will dish out its special loukoumades, or authentic Greek doughnuts drenched in honey and cinnamon.

“Those honey doughnuts, that is the stamp for us Greeks for dessert,” Gatzoulis said.

Emmanuel Psomas, general manager, places Vasilopitas on a shelf at Hellas Bakery on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022, in Tarpon Springs.
Emmanuel Psomas, general manager, places Vasilopitas on a shelf at Hellas Bakery on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022, in Tarpon Springs. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Epiphany schedule

Blessing of the fleet: On Jan. 5, clergy from St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral will bless the fishermen, their vessels and the water in which they travel. The service will occur at 1 p.m. at the Sponge Docks on the Anclote River. Both commercial and recreational boaters will participate.

Epiphany service: On Jan. 6, observances begin at 9 a.m. with prayers, followed by a liturgy at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, 36 N Pinellas Ave., Tarpon Springs.

Procession: Led by Archbishop Elpidophoros, clergy, dignitaries, the 68 cross divers and thousands of people will form an impressive procession after the service from the church to Spring Bayou.

Cross dive: At about noon Jan. 6, an invocation will be recited and a white dove will be released to fly over the bayou. The archbishop will cast a white cross into the water and dozens of young men will dive in with hopes of retrieving it.

Glendi: Following the cross dive, the festival at the Spanos-Pappas Community Center, 348 N Pinellas Ave., will have food, drinks, live music and dancing.

Epiphany Ball: On Jan. 7, there will be dinner and entertainment by Greek musician Dionysis Kornilakis, who specializes in the Cretan lyra, a pear-shaped, three-stringed bowed instrument. 7 p.m. Jan7. Tickets are $85, $45 for age 12 and younger. Spanos-Pappas Community Center, 348 N Pinellas Ave., Tarpon Springs.

Dancers in traditional garb, like these in 2013, will perform at the Glendi during the annual Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs on Jan. 6.
Dancers in traditional garb, like these in 2013, will perform at the Glendi during the annual Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs on Jan. 6. [ LUKE JOHNSON | Tampa Bay Times ]