Tarpon Springs Epiphany: A Sacred Tradition Amidst Rain and Renewed Faith

John Hittos, 16 celebrates after retrieving the cross during the 2024 Epiphany at Spring Bayou on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in Tarpon Springs, Fla

In the midst of a rainy Saturday outside St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Nik Gombos stood and made a promise. Despite the morning's intermittent rain, he foresaw blue skies and sunshine when the boys would dive during Tarpon Springs' 118th Epiphany celebration, the Western Hemisphere's largest commemoration of Jesus Christ's baptism in the Jordan River.

Although rain initially dampened the event, by the afternoon, 65 boys aged 16 to 18 plunged into Spring Bayou under clear skies to retrieve a white cross tossed by the archbishop. John Hittos, 16, emerged with the cross, symbolizing a year of blessings according to tradition.

Attending his first Epiphany in 1967, Gombos remarked on the phenomenon: "That's the Holy Spirit. That's just how it works."

Drawing about 15,000 spectators downtown, the event continued its tradition, featuring a slightly smaller crowd than the previous year. The ceremony was a homecoming for His Eminence Archbishop Nikitas of Thyateira and Great Britain, marking the 50th anniversary of his cross retrieval in 1974.

While clergy and parishioners attended the morning's Divine Liturgy service, spectators gathered around Spring Bayou, waiting for the cross dive. Despite pouring rain at 7 a.m., enthusiasts like Cathy and Robert Lettre secured front-row seats for the afternoon.

People travelled from as far as Canada and Greece to witness the event, while first-time celebrators like Nikki Bailey from Clearwater and her sister, Roni, considered it a bucket list item.

Epiphany holds deep cultural significance in Tarpon Springs, a city with the highest number of Greeks per capita in the U.S. Families, generations apart, partake in the tradition, creating a sense of pride and connection.

The cross dive, the main attraction for many, holds a religious significance for participants like Anastasios Damianakis, 18. For him, it's part of the church service, not just an event.

As the procession arrived at the bayou around 1 p.m., the archbishop blessed Tarpon Springs. The white bird, released by Chloe Kotis, 17, symbolized the Holy Spirit. The boys then plunged into the water, and Hittos emerged with the cross.

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John Hittos, 16, retrieves the cross during the annual cross dive in the Spring Bayou, part of the Epiphany celebration on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in Tarpon Springs

Carried back to the cathedral on his fellow divers' shoulders, Hittos celebrated a crowded reception at St. Nicholas. His unexpected retrieval fulfilled a dream his brother had two nights earlier, and Hittos expressed his wishes for health and happiness for his loved ones.

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