Epiphany is a public holiday in 22 countries, including Greece, and comes every January 6th, 12 days after Christmas.
Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, but it also has reference to the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. Catholic and Protestant traditions emphasise the arrival of the Wise Men, whereas Orthodox countries, like Greece, put the emphasis on Jesus’ baptism.
Epiphany is among the oldest of all Christian holidays, having been continually celebrated since the 2nd Century A.D. The word “epiphany” means “manifestation,” and it is also sometimes called Theophany, meaning “manifestation of God.” This has reference to Jesus being “God manifest in the flesh” and to the voice from Heaven saying “This is My Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased!” at His baptism. Thus, this was a time of manifestation of Jesus’ identity as God’s Son. It was also a time of Jesus’ committal to dying on the cross and rising again, which baptism symbolised.
As to the Wise Men, they came from afar to honour Jesus as the coming King of Kings, guided by a star that led them to Bethlehem. Their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were presents fit for a king.
All across Greece, you can attend special Epiphany services, where the religious significance of the day will be highlighted. The most notable ceremony of Epiphany, however, takes place outside the church building. At Piraeus, the port city serving Athens, a priest will cast an over-sized cross into the harbor to “sanctify” the water. Men will then dive in after it to keep it from floating away, though nowadays, a handy chain is attached as well. Whoever retrieves the cross is sure to have good luck all year long, and the sanctifying of the waters “drives away the evil spirits that inhabit them”. Similar events take place in other parts of Greece, but Piraeus has the largest of these ceremonies.
Three other events you may wish to attend if in Greece for Epiphany are:
- See the camel procession in the city of Drama on January 7th and 8th. Men in a camel suit are the main attraction, but there are also other characters present. There is a spoof on Greek wedding traditions worked into the camel parade, with a heavy dose of satire.
- Go to Pontus for the folk event called “Momogeri.” This is another costumed performance that involves a bride, groom, and other characters from a Greek wedding ceremony, besides many others. Everyone dresses in goat-skin clothes and wears bells, and there is a complex plot that eventually ends in a couple getting married after being thwarted several times.
- In Kavala, see the “Arapides” (Black Men) folk performance. The participants are dressed all in black, including capes and masks, and they ring loud bells as they march down the streets. Two of them fight and wrestle, and one lies down to “play dead.” Soon, after a ritualistic dance, he rises again, symbolising the legend of Dionysus’ resurrection by Zeus after being killed in a battle with the Titans.
Greek Epiphany events are a mix of Christian traditions and pagan backgrounds. They take place all over Greece, and the tourist can probably find one near him regardless of what part of the country he is visiting at the moment.