Tarpon Springs, FLA.- More than 20,000 faithful took part in this yearʼs Epiphany Celebration, of Tarpon Springs, Florida, a daylong celebration of religious ritual and Greek culture. Following the Divine Liturgy at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, and the traditional procession with clergy, altar servers, visiting dignitaries, schoolchildren dressed in traditional Greek costumes, band, choir, and teen divers, Archbishop Demetrios presided over the traditional ceremony of the blessing of the waters.
Fifty two young Greek Orthodox boys under 18 years of age dived for the Cross thrown by Archbishop Demetrios in the waters of Spring Bayou. Seconds later, 18 year old Michael Xipolitas, from Tarpon Springs, surfaced holding the Cross high, over the surface.
“I dreamed about it when I was in the hospital,” said his mother, Helen, who has been in and out of the hospital getting treatment for leukemia. “My son had the same dream.”
Xipolitas was in a haze when he emerged from Spring Bayou on Saturday during the 101st Epiphany celebration. As he kneeled before His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios to receive the special blessing, he was shaking, tears streaming down his wet cheeks.
“It feels better than I imagined,” said Xipolitas.
Epiphany is an ancient Greek Orthodox ceremony commemorating Christʼs baptism in the Jordan River. The first one to retrieve the cross receives a blessing.
“Itʼs like beginning a new life,” Xipolitas said to a crowd back inside St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
The boys were still dripping with the waters of Spring Bayou, which Tarpon Springs police estimated was a balmy 75 degrees.
“I have never seen the water this warm,” said Manuel Gombos, who has been organizing Epiphany for more than three decades.
Last year, nearly 55,000 people gathered to celebrate the centennial Epiphany. They huddled under blankets and wool hats to stay warm.The water was even colder in 2005, when five divers had to be treated for respiratory problems, said Donald Sayre of Tarpon Springs Fire Rescue.
But on Saturday, the morning air hung hot, steaming people who lined the downtown streets, gathered on the grass and clustered around the cathedral.
Humidity was so heavy that the choir robes and police uniforms drooped, everyoneʼs forehead beaded with sweat.
“Our theme this year was to bring it back to the community,” Gombos said.
This yearʼs celebration drew about 20,000 onlookers, police said.
There was an Epiphany Glendi festival afterward at Craig Park, highlighted by food, music and dancing, and an Epiphany Ball at the Spanos-Pappas Community Center Theofilos Hall.
Xipolitas, who turned 18 on Thursday, ran and jumped feet first into the bayou with the others on command. He quickly swam to one of two rowboats best positioned for the quickest path to where the cross would be thrown, and took off after doves were released and Archbishop Demetrios heaved the cross.
“All I could see above water was the tip of the top of the cross,” he said. “I grabbed it with my right hand and got out of the water.”
His fellow divers slapped his back and planted kisses on his cheek and neck before carrying him on their shoulders less than a mile to St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. There was no holding back of emotion.
His mother began screaming for joy when she realized her son had the cross, and she had to be held by both arms and escorted up brick West Tarpon Avenue to the cathedral.
She called her father, John Pontikos of Tarpon Springs, on a cell phone and shouted, “Dad! Michael got the cross!”
She was unable to reach her husband, Nikitas, by phone.
Helen Xipolitas, 49, is on medication and still undergoing chemotherapy.
“I always have faith in God, and that is why I am here,” she said. “And that is why my dream has come true for my son.”
John Rinios of Tarpon Springs, who called himself Michael Xipolitas’ best friend, said, “There is nothing he wanted more than that cross. It’s all he’s talked about for a couple months. He even quit smoking cigarettes for this day.”
Michael’s 16-year-old brother, Yianni Xipolitas, also dived and said he came within five feet of the cross, adding that his brother had come close to getting it in 2006.
“Next year is my turn,” Yianni Xipolitas said.
Kalliope Cortessis, 16, was selected to be the dove bearer and released the bird – a homing pigeon that returned to its trainer in New Port Richey afterward – at Spring Bayou after singing in the choir at the cathedral.
“I’d always watch at the Epiphany when they let the dove go and got goose bumps,” said Cortessis, whose mother, Renee Katsaras, was the dove bearer in 1984. “I feel really special about joining my mom.”
Chris and Elbus Kellamis of North Canton, Ohio, along with their cousin, Bea Wagner, made the trip to Tarpon Springs from Venice, where they are spending a month.
“As a kid, I saw a movie where they dove for the cross here, and I always wanted to see it,” said Chris Kellamis, 71. “I’m really impressed with the reverence of the occasion.
This yearʼs dove bearer was Kalliope Cortessis. Kalliope watched girl after girl from her choir become a dove bearer, waiting patiently for her chance.
“I never really cried because I knew would get to do it someday,” she said.
That day has arrived for the Tarpon Springs High School sophomore with long auburn ringlets and a shy smile.
Kalliope’s brother, Manuel, was among the dozens of teenage boys plunging from the boats into the Bayou in search of the Epiphany cross. The first one to retrieve the cross is believed to have a year of good fortune.
Kalliope said she is honored to be bearing the dove, happy to stay dry and wear ribbons and has no desire to join the packs of boys vying for the cross.
“I would be so nervous,” she said. I’m not really competitive. I let the boys stick to it.”
LAST YEARʼS WINNER
Taking stock of 2006, Jack Vasilaros categorizes it as a pretty good year:
He started his own company and has a patent pending on its first product, Jack’s Easy Flush; caught a 650-pound blue marlin; made a mission trip to Costa Rica.
And those braces that held his smile hostage? Gone.
Not bad for a 17-year-old.
“I can’t complain,” the Clearwater Beach teen says. “Maybe it had something to do with the cross. Someone up there was looking after me.”
A year ago, Vasilaros emerged the victor after 54 Greek boys dove into Spring Bayou to retrieve a cross thrown in by His All Holiness Bartholomew. It’s one of the most popular events at the annual Epiphany festival in Tarpon Springs. Tradition holds that the winner will have a year of blessings and good grace.
For Vasilaros, grace wasn’t just about what happened in 2006 – it’s about what didn’t happen.
“I didn’t go to jail,” he says, referring to the fate of some past winners. “I put that model to rest.”
On Saturday, he gave up the mantel but not the cross, which stays in a glass box in his bedroom.
The Calvary Christian High School junior doesn’t have any advice for those vying for the honor. “I think it’s all out of your control,” he confides. “It’s fate. If you’re meant to get it, it will happen.”
HIS FIRST TIME
This year was the Rev. Michael Eaccarino’s first Epiphany as an official host. But not his first festival, by any means. As a teen growing up in Miami, he was a member of a youth dance troupe that performed at the Tarpon Springs event.
Eaccarino, 57, was installed as dean of St. Nicholas in June, taking over the vacancy left by the pastor of nearly three decades, the Rev. Tryfon Theophilopoulos. The beloved priest, considered one of Tarpon Spring’s best ambassadors and most energetic cheerleaders, died in October 2005.
Eaccarino came to the priesthood from a Fort Lauderdale bicycle shop, which he ran for 17 years. He had married, raised three children and served as a church volunteer when he was urged to follow his original calling. As a younger man, he had graduated from seminary but never was ordained.
After a short conversation with his wife, Eaccarino said goodbye to secular life.
He pursued a specialty in youth ministry by studying at Emory University in Atlanta and under a California Protestant minister (“We’ve got the theology; they’ve got the methodology”). After serving parishes in Atlanta, Virginia and Colorado, he was asked to come to St. Nicholas – considered a plum assignment, given the cathedral’s central location in a thriving Greek-American community.
The only drawback: its proximity to Fournos Bakery. “Not so good for my South Beach diet,” laments Eaccarino, who has dropped 20 pounds in recent months.
“God has really blessed me by bringing me to Tarpon Springs,” he says. “These are truly warm and wonderful people. Their love for each other and everyone who visits shows clearly. Not just at Epiphany, but every day of the year.”