Epiphany: A Greek Orthodox Celebration Rich in Tradition

Epiphany is one of the most sacred Greek Orthodox celebrations, rich in many Christian traditions which also date back to ancient times.

Epiphany (also called Theofania or Fota) is celebrated on January 6 and is a day of joy and brightness, as Christians celebrate the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist.

The most important ritual is the “blessing of the waters”, which is performed by the Greek Orthodox priest. In seaside or lakeside areas, there is also the ritual of the priest throwing a special cross into the water and swimmers jumping in the water to recover it. It is believed  that the person who captures the cross and returns it to the priest will be blessed for the whole year.

Like Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the Epiphany holiday in Greece has its own carols (“kalanda”) as well. Children will sing the ”Fota kalanda” in exchange for money and sweets.

Despite the numerous versions of the Epiphany kalanda, only those sung on Patmos Island retain their original and fully religious character. These kalanda begin with a retelling of the creation of the world, and of the creation of the waters by God, and finally end with the day of Jesus Christ’s baptism in the Jordan river by John the Baptist.

In Thessalia, Central Greece, on the eve of Epiphany, the ”Rougkatsia” (also called Rougkatsaria) are the main attraction of the holiday. These raucous customs involve groups of 10 to 15 people dressed in costumes, going from house to house singing carols for a small amount of money.

Each Rougkatsia group must feature a bride and groom (with the bride portrayed by a young man dressed as a woman), a priest, a grandfather, a doctor and the “arkoudiarides” (owners of bears who made the animals dance for entertainment in Greek rural areas until the 1970’s.)

An ancient ritual which was modified by Greek Christians is the “Ragkoutsaria”. People in Kastoria and Kozani, in northeastern Greece, don symbolic, often scary, masks in order to exorcise the evil spirits from the city. The masked men beg passersby for a monetary reward for successfully casting away the evil spirits.

The same custom is also found in the city of Drama and surrounding areas, where it is called the “Rokatzaria”. The groups of people wear similar scary masks, but they also make deafening noises with bells which they carry, while they walk about the town.

In other villages near Drama and Kavala, the tradition of “arapides” (black men) still survives. This entails the rather striking custom of men walking around the countryside wearing sheepskin and carrying dozens of bells.

It is said that the original arapides were warriors who took part in campaigns under Alexander the Great. Supposedly, they helped him scare away the Indian war elephants during battles with the clamor they made.

In Halkidiki, in northern Greece, the ”Fotarades” ritual has been observed for centuries. There is a “king”, who is dressed in the ”talagani”, a sheperd’s cape, who carries bells and leads the dance, while the “fotarades’” around him wield  swords made of wood to deter anyone from attempting to steal a sausage placed in the middle of a circle.

On the eve of Epiphany, young men sing the ”kalanda” songs and receive meat, sausages and money in return. On January 7, the feast of John the Baptist, they also dance traditional dances at the village square.

In an expression of another ancient folk belief, the bright lights (“Fota”) of the Epiphany chase the mischievous Kalikantzaroi (goblins) back to the middle of the earth for another year.

They will only appear again at the next Christmas Day, after the birth of Christ.

They can freely roam the earth before Christ is baptized on Epiphany — unless you keep your fire lit in your fireplace, which will ward them away.