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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.