The Greek Epiphany Day…in Florida

Outside the local Greek Orthodox cathedral, a statue marks the annual Epiphany dive. (Rachel Jolley)

Outside the local Greek Orthodox cathedral, a statue marks the annual Epiphany dive. (Rachel Jolley)

Everyone in every State of the Union know the Big Dozen: New Year’s Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Father’s Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. In between these primary holidays there still persists many smaller ones and nothing better reflects the Regional Diversity of the United States than these littler holidays: many began as watershed celebrations carried by immigrants as part of their native cultures and helped shape the nature of American regionalism wherever they settled: the French Mardis Gras in New Orleans, the Scottish St. Andrew’s Day in the Carolinas.

Tarpon Springs street 1912.

Tarpon Springs street 1912.

And in a little town about forty-five minutes outside of Tampa Florida called Tarpon Springs that holiday falls on January 6, this Saturday, marking the religious holiday of Epiphany. For those of the Greek Orthodox faith, it is held as the day they believed that Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan.

Florida’s “personality” has been shaped by a rich diversity of Americans. In the south portion is the highest concentration of those descended from Cuban immigrants. In Miami, there’s also a large elderly Jewish population. In northern Florida one finds a great number of those descended from the old Confederacy, both white Anglo-American and the descendants of black former slaves.

The small Gulf Coast town of Tarpon Springs, however, not only has the nation’s largest concentration of those who identify as Greek-Americans (8,000 out of a population of 22,000) but the largest Epiphany celebration in the Western Hemisphere.

John Corcoris, the first Greek-American to immigrate to Tarpon Springs came in 1896, to take charge of the booming sponge industry, where they were processed at local docks.

Sponge Exchange Tarpon Springs.

Sponge Exchange Tarpon Springs.

To begin systematically fetching the natural sponges in the sea, in 1905 he hired some five hundred immigrants from the Greek islands who were expert at diving.

Greek Bakery in Tarpon Springs.

Greek Bakery in Tarpon Springs.

From there, larger numbers of Greek immigrants arrived and a booming, tight-knit community began to grow. Almost from the time the town was established, it drew curious tourists for the excellent Greek food and crafts, as well as take Gulf of Mexico sight-seeing trips.

The archbishop tosses the cross into the sea to begin the ceremony.

The archbishop tosses the cross into the sea to begin the ceremony.

Some five generations of Greek descendants have largely remained settled there – and the sixth of January is their biggest day. The first and most important event of the celebration is entirely religious in nature.

Several dozen young men who complete a rigorous religious training at the town’s regal St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral and other nearby orthodox churches are given the chance to dive into the frigid waters of nearby Spring Bayou and swim to nearby rowboats.

The dive at Tarpon Spring for the cross, an Epiphany tradition.

The dive at Tarpon Spring for the cross, an Epiphany tradition.

Then, a white dove is released into the sky, and an Orthodox religious leader tosses into the ocean a white cross made of wood, with a metal inset that makes it sink rapidly.

At that, the boys dive and swim into the deep water, competing to retrieve it. It might seem like a teenage sporting event, but for the boys it is a serious exercise of their faith.

The boy who finds the cross is heralded as a local hero each year at the parade which follows, legend holding that he will be favored by God in the coming year.

Greek food is in abundance at the afternoon festival.

Greek food is in abundance at the afternoon festival.

An afternoon Greek festival follows, with native food, dancing and music. At night, the cathedral sponsors a dinner dance for church members. Some ten thousand non-Greek visitors from around the country make their way into “Epiphany City,” as it was christened in 1975 and, in that curiously American way, discover something of the Aegean culture in the Gulf Coast of the Sunshine State.

Festival Time during Epiphany Ceremonies Tarpon Springs

Festival Time during Epiphany Ceremonies Tarpon Springs

Dining at night in Tarpon Springs.

Dining at night in Tarpon Springs.

Procession of the icon during he Epiphany holiday. (St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church)

Procession of the icon during he Epiphany holiday. (St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church)

A dance demonstration.

A dance demonstration.

Floridians celebrating Epiphany after the day's religious events.

Floridians celebrating Epiphany after the day’s religious events.

Despite over 10,000 visitors coming for the Epiphany event, it hasn't lost its small-town quality.

Despite over 10,000 visitors coming for the Epiphany event, it hasn’t lost its small-town quality.


Categories: Diversity, Epiphany, History, Holidays, Regionality

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12 replies »

  1. Happy New Year, Carl –
    – with apologies for relentlessly beating the drum in my “comments” for old Calvin Coolidge!
    “Silent Cal” was in Tarpons Springs on January 10, 1930. The Coolidges went out in a boat named the “Calvin Coolidge” – Divers brought up a couple of sponges for them. Then, they went on to Mount Dora and the Lakeside Inn where they spent a month. I will soon be on the road heading for Mount Dora where I anticipate spending two weeks. I vacation faster than Coolidge could. Actually, it is research that is taking me down.
    beWell.

  2. Fascinating article……thanks for a great story and the photos….

  3. Especially interesting to me in this post was how the Greek community got its start in Tarpon Springs, because I’ve often wondered if what eventually become very large communities spanning many generations might begin with just one person, or a single family. Here in San Francisco we have a very large and very old Russian community, with some similar but also different Epiphany traditions among those who are Orthodox Christians, including those observed at more than one cathedral–San Francisco Bay is a lot colder to dive into, however, than the waters of Florida!

    • Most definitely colder….but I also think the cultural link to Greece where many are accustomed to diving as part of island life is certainly what firmly rooted the link to Tarpon Springs. One of the story ideas in the hopper here is about the large Danish community that came from the upper Midwest and settled in southern California, only later to be recast several generations later as the “California blond surfer” types.

      • Part of my own family is Danish, so I’ll be looking forward to that surfer post. Amazing what you come up with.

        • Hopefully I will get that out in the spring, with a new series I’m sketching out. Sorry for the delayed response! And thank you for so consciously and fully contributing here, as well as your own website. Your observations are enjoyed not only by me but all the regular readers as well as what I call “the strangers who wander in.”

      • Although it was a totally different ocassion, our local polar bear club took its annual plunge into our local lake This was quite a frigidly sobering event for some of us first timers! Yikes! I think I’ll hand my baton over to another bravely budding bear next year…brrrrrrr!!

        • Well – you did it. Once is, I imagine, more than enough for most people. Hope someone took a photo of you doing it so you can long prove it in case anyone calls you up for the challenge in years to come. From what I read, even though its the Gulf Coast, that Tarpon Springs dive is pretty frigid, certainly not icy but hardly Miami warm.

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