A high of 56 didn’t stop 57 boys from diving Saturday afternoon into Spring Bayou in Tarpon Springs to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany.
It didn’t stop spectators from showing up, either. By noon, there were about 3,000 people lining up around the water in anticipation of the Casting of the Cross.
The Epiphany Festival is an annual Greek Orthodox Christian event in honor of the baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan by John the Baptist.
It has been celebrated in Tarpon Springs for 112 years. According to Spectrum Bay News 9, the celebration is the nation’s largest and usually has an attendance of around 20,000 people.
A blessed cross was tossed into the bayou and 57 boys dove in to retrieve it. Christian Chrysakis, 18, retrieved the cross less than a minute after it was tossed around 12:38 p.m.
He kissed the white cross before throwing his arms into the air and heading toward the ladder to leave the water. Blanketed in a warm, white towel, Chrysakis celebrated with hugs and kisses from his family before heading back to the church for his blessing.
With the coveted cross in one hand and a trophy in the other, Chrysakis sat on the shoulders of friends as they carried him back to the church.
Safety was of the utmost importance, though, and the Epiphany Committee took steps to make sure the boys weren’t endangered because of the cool weather. Dive teams scanned the water beforehand, medical professionals were on stand-by, and warm towels were ready for the when the young men exited the water.
The boys were also offered wetsuits to wear during the contest before their 12:15 p.m. procession from the church to the water, but each of them declined, instead opting to brave the cold in plain white T-shirts.
“This is not the first time we have had weather like this for the dive and it probably won’t be the last,” Michael Kouskoutis, a member of the committee, told Bay News 9. “We want to make sure the boys are safe, but it’s part of their right of passage for the Greek Orthodox young men in this area.”
According to Bay News 9, the Florida Wildlife Commission dive teams found a few split open cans at the bottom of the bayou. However, the water was around 70 degrees, warmer than the low-50s air temperature Saturday afternoon.
The young men dove into the water shortly before 12:30 p.m. and swam toward tiny, white boats, where they sat listening to prayer for about 10 minutes. Cold weather appeared to be the reason why the casting was moved up from its original 1 p.m. start time.
In order to be chosen to partake in the Casting of the Cross, the boys had to submit 500-word essays, as well as a video essay, as part of a long application process.
Glendi, a festival featuring live Greek music and food, follows the Casting of the Cross.