“A love for tradition has never weakened a nation, indeed it has strengthened nations in their hour of peril” - Winston Churchill
Today the Christian Church celebrates the Epiphany. The Epiphany (also called Theophany) celebrates three important events in the Christian calendar. The first is the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem and the adoration of the Christ Child; the second is the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist; the third the miracle at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine, when there was no more wine for the guests at that same wedding that Jesus was invited to.
In the Western Christian churches, the adoration of the Magi is the most important of these celebrations while in Eastern churches, Christ’s baptism is the most important. The word epiphania in Greek means “manifestation” and refers to the appearance of the Christ child to the Magi. The winter jasmine (yellow jasmine), Jasminum nudiflorum, is a flower symbolic of the Epiphany and is also an attribute of the Virgin Mary.
In Greece, the ritual of the blessing of the waters is carried out today to commemorate Christ’s baptism. After the divine morning liturgy in church, the clergy and the people join a procession with the blessed cross to the nearest body of living water (lake, sea or river). If there is no body of open water near the church, the blessing ceremony is held outside the church in a baptismal font filled with water. At the end of the ceremony the priest will bless the waters by casting a cross into the water. If practicable, it is now the turn of volunteers – mostly young men – to participate in the ceremony. They dive into the water to recover the cross. The lucky one who returns the cross to the priest, receives a special blessing. In the past a gold cross to wear around the neck was the custom, but it is unfortunate that nowadays this is no longer done.
The church liturgy also blesses water in the church and the Greek Orthodox faith teaches that on this day a miracle happens as the blessing is performed and the nature of the blessed water changes and it becomes holy and incorrupt. People take this Holy Water at home and sprinkle their house, their fields, their animals. They also drink it, believing they derive a special blessing from these rituals. Sprinkling the waters also cleans the world of the mischievous Kalikantzaroi (the pesky goblins that trick and torment God-fearing Christians throughout the festive season).
As it is Food Friday, we should mention that in Greek Orthodox tradition the 5th of January is a strict fast day. Not only are meat, fish, dairy products and eggs forbidden, but also oily substances (including vegetable oils). It is believed that this fast cleanses the body after the dietary indiscretions of the holiday season and prepares it for receiving the Holy Water that will be drunk on the Epiphany.
A traditional fasting food that was consumed in Crete is called “Photocóllyva” or “Pappoúdia”. This was made with boiled wheat, together with all sorts of pulses like split peas, beans, broad beans, lentils. It was served well boiled and consumed with a little bread and some chopped raw onions and parsley. The term “Photocóllyva” is derived from the name of the holiday “Phota” (=lights) and “Cóllyva” a traditional dish made for the memory of the dead with boiled wheat. A particularly touching part of the ritual was that this food was shared with the household animals, particularly the oxen, which helped to produce the wheat and the pulses through their efforts. By sharing one’s food with the animals that helped in its production acknowledges their invaluable help.