Take a plunge in ice-cold water on Epiphany

You don’t have to be Russian or Orthodox Christian to be part of this holiday.

The ritual of diving into ice-cold water was passed onto Russia from the traditions of the ancient Scythians who hardened their children in this manner. The custom gradually became part of the Orthodox Christian holiday of Epiphany (January 19).

After Christianity was adopted in Kievan Rus (in 988), Epiphany became one of Russia’s main religious holidays. Traditionally, cross-shaped holes (jordans), named after the Jordan River where Jesus Christ was baptized, were cut into the ice. On the night of January 18, religious processions with priests at the head made their way to the jordans. The priest blessed the water in the hole by dipping a cross into it three times and reading a prayer. From this moment on, all waterways (and in later times, tap water) were considered to be holy. People cleansed themselves in it, drank it, collected it and took it home to bless their dwellings and cure illnesses.

The custom of plunging into cold water that has been blessed by a priest was not widespread at first. Only those who participated in mummers’ plays over the 12 days after Orthodox Christmas (January 7) would dive into the water on Epiphany (January 19).  According to pagan traditions, they wore animal masks and entertained the people with songs and carols on Yuletide, so they had to “wash away the mask of the animal” afterwards by submerging their heads in ice-cold blessed water. Over time, the tradition spread and became part of the belief that by dipping in a hole in the ice three times on Epiphany, a person could “wash away” the sins that they accumulated over the year.

These days, these Epiphany diving ceremonies are for many a folk holiday. Not all the participants take a dip for religious reasons on Epiphany, some of them just test themselves, strengthen their health, try something new, and have fun.

You don’t have to be Russian or Orthodox Christian to be part of this holiday. The main thing is to be open to new things and to have a positive attitude while observing a few simply safety rules.

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