by Aria Socratous

TARPON SPRINGS, Fl. Twenty five thousand people cheered in celebration of a new Spring Bayou cross-retriever, the 18 year old Hunter Sakadales in the largest Epiphany celebration in the Western Hemisphere.

For the 114th year, crowds turned out at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral and at Spring Bayou for the traditional throwing of the cross during Epiphany celebrations.

The annual celebration of the Baptism of Jesus Christ by St. John the Baptist in the River Jordan was celebrated on Monday, January 6, 2020 at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon Springs, Florida. A procession to the Spring Bayou  commenced immediately following the church service for the Blessing of the Waters and Cross retrieval.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, stopping by ahead of his visit with President Donald Trump and His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros, Primate of the Greek Archdiocese of America and Metropolitan Alexios of Atlanta were among the participants in this year’s observance.

“What a privilege to find myself here, in Tarpon Springs, among this dynamic Greek community”, Mitsotakis said from a platform overlooking the bayou, standing beside the archbishop. “You keep the flag of Greece flying very high”.

“This Holy Event is not merely a yearly symbolic re-enactment but a “real time” transformation of nature. Therefore, we, here in the Tarpon Springs area, become recipients of the true metamorphosis of our environment. We are protected from above.”, said the Reverend Fr. Athanasios Haros, Dean of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

Leading up to the feast day, the Blessing of the Fleet took place on Saturday, January 5th at noon. Clergy  blessed the fisherman, their vessels, and the water in which they travel, and wish them safe and prosperous journeys. The service  occured at the Sponge Docks on the Anclote River, which feeds into the Gulf of Mexico. Both commercial fishermen and recreational boaters  participated.

On January 6th, Epiphany observances began at 8 a.m. with Orthros (Matins) followed by the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral at 10 a.m.

Following the Divine Liturgy and Great Blessing of the waters, Archbishop Elpidoforos, hierarchs, clergy, dignitaries and thousands of people  formed an impressive procession to Spring Bayou, with school children in traditional costumes, choir members, Greek Folk dance groups from throughout the Tampa Bay Area. There, an invocation was recited, a young lady, Cynthia Tsaousis, 25 years old, released a white dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit to fly over the Bayou. The Archbishop casted a white cross into the water and fifty-seven young men dove for the cross, each seeking the honor of retrieving it. Breaking through, he screamed, “I got it! I got it!”

His fellow cross divers lifted him up.The retriever then kneeled with the cross before the Archbishop for a blessing.

Following the ceremony, an Epiphany Glendi (festival) at Craig Park with food drink, live music and dancing. There were also  shows of traditional Greek dancing performed by the Levendia, the nationally award winning Greek dance troupe and by students of Holy Trinity’s Greek school in Clearwater.

The President of St Nicholas church, Nikitas Manias, bestowed His Emminence Elpidoforos a symbolic statue of a cross diver.

“Since this is a special occasion and your first visit in Tarpon Springs, we want to express our love and show you our love. We hope you put this in your office and think of us”.

St. Nicholas reserves the cross dive only for boys 16 to 18 and is one of the few, if not the only Greek Orthodox church in the U.S, .that bans girls. Every year one girl is selected from the choir and given the honor of releasing the dove before the dive.

The largest Epiphany celebration in the Western Hemisphere brought an estimated 25,000 people to downtown Tarpon Springs on a cloudless and chilly Monday, according to spokesperson Johanna Kossifidis.