By Pamela Lytra
Epiphany is an important religious celebration for all Greeks and Orthodox Christians. The day on which Jesus was baptized symbolizes the regeneration of man and that is why Epiphany used to be celebrated, until the mid-4th century, as New Year’s Day. Epiphany, or Fota as this celebration is otherwise called in Greece, is associated with the removal of evil spirits, human fertility and land fertility.
Myth or Truth?
It is also considered that the celebration of Epiphany brings catharsis. The waters are sanctified and evil is driven out of them. During earlier centuries, villagers considered this particular day as the biggest celebration of the year when they would wear their new clothes in order for them to be sanctified!
There was also a myth that on the eve of Epiphany, the heavens opened and people could get anything they requested. In Smyrna, for example, young girls who wanted to marry during the New Year planted basil in May and took care of it until the Epiphany celebration when the priest would come to sanctify it. If the girl was successful. then she would definitely get married that year!
Epiphany Original Traditions
Ancient customs mostly derive from pagan times, and are revived during the twelve days before Epiphany and, more intensely, on the eve and the day of Epiphany as well as on January 7 when Saint John the Baptist is celebrated. The most well-known custom of that day is the throwing of the Cross! After the priest sanctifies the waters, he throws the Cross in the sea or the river and the men dive to retrieve it. It is believed that the man who catches is it first is going to have much luck during the year.
The Change – Water Purification
In many parts of Greece, the housewife, on the eve of Epiphany, pours out all the water – usually old Holy Water – so that in the morning, they can get fresh Holy Water from the church. The arrival of fresh, sanctified Holy Water means the exorcism of evil spirits from the household.
The Camel Custom
This custom is celebrated on January 7 and 8, the day after Epiphany, in Petrousa in the Municipality of Drama, Greece. The virtual camel, followed by some people, performs the ritual of the virtual seeding as well as the satirical representation of a local wedding. The camel symbolizes resistance to adverse conditions because it is an animal that can withstand hunger and thirst, and man’s determination to continue fighting for the best.
Carols are not only sung on Christmas and New Year’s Eve, but also on the day of Epiphany. On the eve of Epiphany, the so-called “agyrmoi” (gathering) of children wander from house to house singing carols. In some parts of Greece, adults do as well, but they are disguised with dreadful faces creating noise with bells hanging on them. The purpose of this behavior is to scare the goblins.
It is a satirical folk ritual celebrated by the Pontus Greeks in Eastern Macedonia. It is represented in the backyards of homes and in squares during the twelve days of celebration. The main protagonist of the ritual is the Momogeros or Kiti Gotsas, along with his troupe which includes the bride and groom, equestrian Ali, the father, the doctor, the musician, the best man, the policeman, two small devils, a pregnant woman and their company.
All the participants wear bells, hides and skins of goats. The Momogeros invades village homes at sunset and engages the landlords in various funny adventures. The kidnapping of the bride also plays a key role, seeing as after repeated fake clashes between the participants, the new couple manage to come together and even get married by the “Pope” that arrives during the end in order to restore some order.
This custom is repeated from house to house under the sounds of Pontic lyra and tabor.
The Washing of the Priest in Thrace
In Sinapli, a village in northern Thrace, when the sanctification was over, every Christian in the neighborhood went to the priest’s home, put the priest in the car and drove him to the spring outside the village. There, they would bathe him, symbolizing the baptism of Christ. One of the Christians would wear one of the priest’s old cassocks and he would pretend to be the priest while the others took him to a different spring. They would return after bathing him, and then the real priest greeted them and they got drunk and danced together.
The Arapides, or Black Men Custom
On the day of Epiphany, in Kavala, Greece, a ritual called “Arapides” (black men) is performed. The custom got its name because the protagonists’ main color is black. Black flocked capes, masks and impressive masks made of goat skin.
Groups of “Arapides” parade in the streets, under the deafening sounds of bells they wear. The two group leaders wrestle until one falls. Then they all gather around the fallen leader and the ritual ends with the resurrection of the dead and a peculiar frantic dance. According to tradition, this custom symbolizes the death of Dionysus by the Titans and his resurrection by Zeus, along with nature’s hibernation, or Winter, and the resurrection of nature, Spring.