TARPON SPRINGS –
Tarpon Springs proved once more it is the Epiphany City of the United Stated. A crowd of more than 20,000 people, among them 46 Greek Orthodox young divers, of age 16-18 years old, took part in the Annual Epiphany celebration, taking place at the little town built by Greek sponge divers.
This year’s winner was 16 year old James Hughes, from Belleair, a sophomore at Tampa’s Berkeley Prep. Less than a minute after Archbishop Demetrios tossed the cross into the 64-degree water, Hughes rose to the surface clutching it in his right hand, to roaring applause. And according to the custom, he has special blessings for a year.
Later on, breathless from the effort, still holding the cross, shivering, draped with a red towel he told the local press:
“All 46 of us wanted to get it, and I was the one who got it. This means so much.”
“I saw this cross gleaming in the water, and I just got it,” Hughes said. “It kind of stood out in the dark muck.”
“Axios!” – Greek for “He is worthy!” – roared the crowd along the bayou’s shores.
“Jimmy! Jimmy! You did it,” came the cries from the platform as he was hoisted on the shoulders of his friends.
The teen genuflected before the archbishop and bowed his head to receive a golden cross. And he also received the trophy from 2003 winner, Nioti Koulianos.
Hughes is the son of Allen, an orthopedic surgeon, and Irene, who manages his office. The proud parents described their son as “kind, courteous and intelligent.” They said he excels in sports – football, basketball and swimming – as well as in school.
Hughes’ Greek heritage comes from his grandfather James Hadey, 80, a native of Greece who now lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Bessie.
Epiphany is the greatest of all celebrations in Tarpon Springs. Right after the cross dive, a large party took place at Graig Park, with Greek food and dancing, while Allen led the divers to a tour in every Tarpon Springs home. Women in black dresses clustered around him like he was a rock star, bowing and kissing the cross in his hand. Hughes’ cheeks flushed with the attention, but he was humble to the end.
“It’s not me they’re kissing,” Hughes said. “It’s the cross. It’s the power of the cross.”
An additional honor at the event was bestowed on Kaliope Mott, 13, an eighth-grader at Tarpon Springs Middle School. She was chosen to release the dove that represents the Holy Spirit descending onto Jesus after his baptism.
“It’s a blessing,” said Kaliope, cradling the bird. “It’s an honor to hold the Holy Spirit in my hands.”
St. Nicholas Cathedral was standing-room-only for the morning prayer service, followed by the divine liturgy led by Archbishop Demetrios.
“This is an important feast that celebrates a central event in the life of Christ,” he said. “But it’s also something that brings the community together, not just in Florida but all over the world.”, his Eminence told the local press.
Epiphany Celebration brings in Tarpon Springs thousands of people from neighboring towns. Elli Grim, a Sunday school teacher from Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Fort Myers, brought eight children from her class to the celebration. She remembers a similar festival from her childhood in East Africa and wanted her students to share the experience.
Archbishop Demetrios arrived in Tampa Florida Monday afternoon. A group of 15 children, along with local priests greeted him at the airport. Later on he visited Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church of Clearwater, were the local priest offered a luncheon at his honor. In the evening he attended the Annual Epiphany Dance of the local order of AHEPA.