Tarpon Springs, FL.- The unusually cold weather and the fact that the Day of the Epiphany was on a week day, limited the attendance of this year’s feast in Tarpon Springs, Florida. A crowd of 5-8,000 thousand people gathered around the Spring Bayou, for the 104th Epiphany Day Celebration, of the picturesque village founded more than a century ago by Greek sponge divers. Archbishop Demetrios of America presided over the holy liturgy and the diving of the cross, recovered in less than 30 seconds from the cold waters (50 degrees) by 16 year old Dimitrios Kalogiannis. That was the best birthday present for his father George.
“It is the best thing a son can do to a home in Greece and in the Greek Orthodox religion, to bring that cross up,” said the elder Kalogiannis, a marine contractor who celebrated his 51st birthday the night before. “It is a great honor and a big blessing.”
Tampa Tribune wrote of a crowd of about 5,000 spectators, about half of last year’s crowd. Record low temperatures in the mid-40s likely helped keep the number of visitors down.
The icy air also played a role in adjusting the timing of the events. The divers normally jump into the water and swim to one of the rowboats anchored in a semicircle. They wait in the boats as clergy conduct a 15-minute waterside service.
But after a meeting with concerned parents Tuesday, it was decided to do prayers prior to the dive, then speed up the service to keep the wet boys’ wait in the boats to a minimum.
That plan proved successful. According to Tarpon Springs Fire Rescue, only four boys – out of the 66 that dived for the Cross – were treated for cuts and cold, and none had to be transported to the hospital.
Church tradition dictates the boy who retrieves the cross gets a special blessing for a year. All of the participants, wet and shivering, got a post-dive prayer from Archbishop Demetrios, spiritual leader of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Archbishop Demetrios told the divers that they were a special group for having taken the plunge in the midst of the colder-than-usual temperatures.
“All of you are winners today,” he told them.
Kalogiannis, a junior at Gulf High School in New Port Richey, runs cross country, lifts weights and competes in Greek dancing events. But he’s also been around water his whole life as a “regular water bug,” said his mother, Delia.
“Dimitrios is a very down-to-earth boy. He’s not a limelight kind of person,” she said. “He likes to be behind the scene. But now he will have to learn to be in front of it.”
The teen came up with the prized possession in less than 30 seconds. That part didn’t surprise his father, who said his son has a quiet determination that shines through in every task he undertakes. Whatever Dimitrios puts his mind to, “he’s going to get it done and he’s going to get it done right.”
The younger Kalogiannis said he dived forward in the 51-degree water and saw the white cross glowing in the water.
“It was standing up straight and just glowing,” he recounted. Asked to describe his emotions, he could only shake his head in disbelief. “It’s amazing, just amazing. I don’t know what else to say.”
Wednesday, Valantis Kouros, 18, made his final dive. Though he left the waters without the cross, he said he’s still blessed.
“I have mixed feelings, but it was great in that diving in that water and trying to retrieve the victorious sign of the church, there is not a better feeling than that no matter what,” Kouros said. “All the boys are blessed in their own way.”
Wednesday’s cold blast wasn’t going to keep Rory O’Conner of Oldsmar away from the Epiphany event. Just last Sunday, the former Navy SEAL participated in a 3-mile swimming fundraiser in Tampa Bay with his 15-year-old son to benefit a wounded comrade.
He and his wife, Mary, came out in support of one of the teen divers, a friend and fellow swim team member of his son’s.
“He was there for us on Sunday; now we’re here for him,” O’Conner said.
Plus, he said, supporting events like Epiphany will help his wife keep her New Year’s resolution to get to know Florida better by taking more one-tank trips.
“We’ve been here 13 years and never seen this,” he said. “It’s about time to come out and pay our respects to the Greek community. After all, they’re the grandfathers of Western civilization.”
Suzanne Murphy, an artist who just moved to Tarpon Springs two years ago from Colorado, had her camera in hand to capture the celebration. She plans to spend the next two months painting portraits of the images.
“This celebration is an excellent example of how the community keeps its culture and religion alive,” she said. As for the weather? She came prepared in long underwear, tights, gloves and a ski vest.
“Luckily, I didn’t get rid of all my winter clothes when we moved here,” she said with a laugh.
Margarita Villanueva is a native of Spain, where Epiphany is a national holiday. Though the family now lives in Lake Mary, she and her husband, Luis, took their children out of school for the second year in a row to join the festivities.
She’s a Catholic, and in her faith, Epiphany celebrates the visit of the wise men bearing gifts to the infant Jesus. But that aside, “the Greeks and the Spanish are a lot alike. When we come to Tarpon Springs, we feel like we’re back home. This is a wonderful, wonderful day, especially for families. They make you feel so welcome.”
AHEPA EPIPHANY DINNER
Supreme President Nicholas Karacostas visited with members of the District 2 Lodge and Brothers of George Washington Chapter 16, Tarpon Springs, Fla.. Since 1929, AHEPA’s George Washington Chapter has hosted the AHEPA Epiphany Banquet, and on Tuesday, January 5, honored retired U.S. Congressman Michael Bilirakis, a fellow Ahepan. His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios also attended the banquet.
On Wednesday, January 6, Supreme President Karacostas, Supreme Vice President Dr. John Grossomanides, Region 1 Supreme Governor Pete Sergis and District 2 Governor Demetrios Kirkiles, as well as Grand President Elaine Sampanis, attended Epiphany services at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which was officiated by His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios.
Later that evening, the Supreme and Grand Presidents were honored to speak at a joint dinner hosted by five area AHEPA chapters: Tarpon, Clearwater, Pasco, St. Petersburg and Tampa were all present. Nearly 100 guests were in attendance.