TARPON SPRINGS — They say all who dive into the chilly waters of Spring Bayou on Jan. 6 feel a little lighter when they emerge — cross in hand or not.
And this year, on the anniversary of the Capitol insurrection and with COVID-19 lingering, parents expressed a special appreciation for any extra blessings their families might take home from the 116th Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs.
The cross dive, where 65 boys competed this year to secure a white wooden cross tossed into the bayou, draws the celebration’s biggest crowd to Tarpon Springs, a community with the nation’s largest per-capita population of Greeks.
Along the shore, it was hard to ignore cellphones dinging with the latest take on the insurrection and conversations about whether people should be wearing masks.
There was little angst in the water, though, as 16-year-old Alexander Makris of New Port Richey emerged from the spirited splashing with cross held high. He was hoisted onto shoulders and carried dripping wet for a walk of a few blocks to the religious center of the celebration, St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
His parents beamed with pride amid shouts of the Greek cheer of faith, “Axios, axios!” — he is worthy.
The trials of the times notwithstanding, it’s always been like this, said John Michael Manglis, whose 17-year-old son, Nicholas, dove for the first time Thursday. Now a 42-year-old father of five, Manglis dove but never grabbed the cross as a boy, like his father and grandfather did before him. But he has an encyclopedic knowledge of those who did, and “every one of those boys has been worthy,” he said.
“Whether they came from a family of cross retrievers or whether they were the skinniest kid in the pack, there always seems to be some reason, some meaning behind why they needed to get the cross that year,” Manglis said. “It always just feels right.”
The weight of the moment finally hit young Makris as the boys rounded a street corner and the steps of St. Nicholas came into view.
“It’s a dream come true,” he yelled to the crowd as it cheered him on.
The boy’s father, Nicholas Makris, said he was shocked to see his son, a student at River Ridge High School, emerge with the cross in hand. He had high hopes before the event but thought it would be tough going for a first-timer.
“We’re just so proud,” the father said. “I lived up north when I was a teenager and had nothing like this. Him grabbing that cross will forever be one of the greatest moments of my life.”
It was a sweet reward, too, for those Tarpon Springs families who worked to make Epiphany dreams come true during a year of challenge and division.
Last year, the pandemic put a damper on the town’s signature celebration. For the first time since World War II, there was no “dove bearer” girl present to release a bird before the group of boys dove into the water. No big crowd of onlookers, either, because of COVID-19 social distancing.
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And the daylong Glendi festival of Greek dancing, music and food was canceled in 2021. There was no Glendi this year, either, not directly because of COVID-19 restrictions — there weren’t any — but because not enough volunteers stepped forward.
Questions have been raised through the years, repeated this year in at least one Twitter post, about why the cross dive remains a boys-only event. Plenty of other Orthodox churches allow girls to dive for the cross, acknowledges St. Nicholas’ dive coordinator, Michael Kouskoutis.
But the Tarpon Springs church reasons that the divers are meant to represent Jesus Christ emerging from the water reborn. Epiphany is the day Greek and Eastern Orthodox Christians recognize the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan River.
Mary Koulianos likes it the way it is. She raised two sons and both have retrieved the cross, she said.
“It’s not an athletic event, it’s not a competition or a pageant. It’s something sacred that we hold dear in this community that we pass on family to family,” Koulianos said. “We’re celebrating the baptism of Christ, we’re not celebrating women’s liberation — and I’m very liberal.”
John Michael Manglis got another look Thursday at the enduring value of the tradition. And it made him proud.
When son Nicholas received his white Epiphany T-shirt at Wednesday night’s divers meeting, he held it up, pressed it against his face and began to cry. His aunt and mother were quick to comfort him — “Don’t worry, we can get it altered if it needs to be fixed. It’ll look great!”
But the boy wasn’t upset, his father said. He was happy.
“He told us, ‘I just feel like I’ve already been blessed. It’s real now. It’s actually happening.’ ”