In Belgium we know Epiphany as “Three King’s Day”: we celebrate it on 6 January, when we commemorate the visit of the three magi (kings) to baby Jesus. When I was a child, we used to dress up as the kings and went from door to door to sing songs upon which we received some money or sweets in return. Unfortunately, nowadays this tradition is disappearing. Another one, however, still stands: that of the “three kings’ pie”, a yummy pastry with almond filling that has a black bean (or another small object) hidden inside. Whoever finds the bean in his piece of pie is king or queen for the day and gets to wear a crown.
In Russia, Epiphany turns out to be something completely different. Not only is it celebrated on another day, i.e. today, 19 January (due to the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendar), it’s actually not even about the three kings but about the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River.
Traditions don’t involve children’s songs or pastries but ice swimming. Russian Orthodox Christians believe that on this day, water becomes holy and is imbued with special powers. So they cut holes in the ice of lakes and rivers, often in the shape of the cross, and bathe in the freezing water. Brrr!
As part of the ritual, they may dip themselves three times under the water, honouring the Holy Trinity, to symbolically wash away their sins from the past year, and to experience a sense of spiritual rebirth. Orthodox priests are on hand to bless the water, and rescuers are on hand to monitor the safety of the swimmers in the ice-cold water.
Here are some pictures from last year: