Blessing of the Waters

Blessing of the Waters (Orthodox Epiphany)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: January 6
Where Celebrated: Greece, United States, and by Orthodox Christians around the world
Symbols and Customs: Basil, Cross, Dove
Related Holidays: Epiphany


The Blessing of the Waters is a Christian holiday celebrated by Orthodox Christians. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions. There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings Blessing of the Waters

assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.

While Roman Catholic and Protestant churches emphasize the visit of the Magi when they celebrate EPIPHANY, Orthodox Christian Churches celebrate the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan on January 6. In honor of Jesus' baptism, when the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a DOVE and proclaimed Him the Son of God, the church's baptismal water is blessed, and small bottles of holy water are given to worshippers to take home. In many American cities, priests lead their congregations to a local river, which they bless. Many countries throughout the world mark the day with the immersion of a CROSS in the sea, a lake, or a river.

In Palestine, it was the River Jordan that received a blessing on Epiphany. Thousands of pilgrims would gather on its shores to step into the water after the rites were held, submerging themselves three times to obtain the maximum blessing. In Egypt, the Nile was blessed for many centuries. Christians and Muslims alike would plunge into the waters three times, then drive their domestic animals into the river. In Rome, the water that was blessed in the church and taken home on this day was believed to stay fresh throughout the year and even longer.

In Greece, the Blessing of the Waters is still one of the country's most important church days, especially in seaport towns. Back when Greek ships depended on the wind to get from one place to another, most seamen tried to be home before CHRISTMAS . Believing it wasn't a good idea to be at sea during the Twelve Days of Christmas, they cast anchor and waited for the priest to bless the waters before they set out on their next journey. Even today, Greek seamen try to be back in their home ports for Epiphany. When the CROSS is thrown into the water, the ships blow their whistles or fire cannons. Young men dive in to retrieve the cross, and the one who brings it to the surface has the privilege of carrying it around town and receiving gifts from the townspeople.

In the United States, the best-known Blessing of the Waters celebration takes place in Tarpon Springs, Florida. The community's Greek roots can be traced back to the early twentieth century, when sponge divers from Greece came there to take part in the growing sponge industry. The Epiphany Day ceremonies begin with a religious service, during which the water in the church is blessed with special prayers and rituals. A long and colorful procession through the streets follows, ending at the Spring Bayou. There a priest reads the story of Jesus' baptism from the New Testament and, at the stroke of noon, a white DOVE is released. The archbishop then throws a golden CROSS into the water and young men from the local Greek Orthodox churches compete in diving for it. The one who retrieves it receives a blessing from the archbishop and is supposed to have good luck for the entire year. Afterward, a Greek dinner is served, bouzouki music is played, and Greek folk dances are performed.



In Greece, young girls sometimes sit up all night on Epiphany Eve to watch a pot of sweet basil, symbolic of good wishes, burst into flower when the heavens open up. They believe that wishes made on this night are more likely to be answered.

In Greek villages, the Blessing of the Waters often takes the form of having the local priest walk through the village after Mass and bless each home by sprinkling them with a sprig of basil dipped in holy water.


The cross that is thrown into the water on Epiphany is a symbol of Christ, who died on the cross. It is also a symbol of salvation and redemption through Christianity. Although the cross occupied a prominent place in other religions long before Christianity, it has come to be regarded as a uniquely Christian symbol.


In ancient and Christian art, the dove is a symbol of purity and peace. It also symbolizes the Holy Ghost, who appears in the story of Jesus' baptism as told in the New Testament: "And John bore record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him." (John 1:32)


Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols. New York: Philosophical Library, 1962. Cohen, Hennig, and Tristram Potter Coffin. The Folklore of American Holidays. 3rd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999. Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954. Gulevich, Tanya. Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations. 2nd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2003. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Ickis, Marguerite. The Book of Festivals and Holidays the World Over. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1970. Johnson, F. Ernest, ed. Religious Symbolism. New York: Institute for Religious and Social Studies, 1955. Blessing of the Waters

MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Olderr, Steven. Symbolism: A Comprehensive Dictionary. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1986. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Weiser, Franz Xaver. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958.

Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
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Against the backdrop of crumbling hotels and homes ringed with barbed wire, a Greek Orthodox priest cast a cross into the sea, symbolising a blessing of the waters, and the manifestation of Jesus as the son of God.
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BY THE TIME you read this, indigenous congregations across North America will have taken part in the Great Blessing of the Waters. This blessing ceremony was held among Anglican indigenous Christians, as an expression of solidarity with Orthodox Christians in Alaska and Siberia--a majority of them indigenous--who celebrate the Feast of the Theophany, the celebration of the baptism of Jesus on January 19.
ISTANBUL/CANAKKALE, Jan 6, 2011 (TUR) -- Orthodox Christian clergy and faithful in Turkey have participated in the ancient tradition of Blessing of the Waters on the Feast of Epiphany.
Sofia church while the consecrating of Bulgaria's military flags and sacred flags and the blessing of the waters was performed in front of the Alexander Nevsky cathedral.
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An hour later, the blessing of the waters will take place at Glossa beach.
A church liturgy and blessing of the waters was also held in the occupied area of Famagusta, at Ayios Georgios Exorinos.
The service will be carried out from7.30am to 10.30am at Ayios Georgios Exorinos and pilgrims will then go -- at 11.30am -- to the Glossa beach where the blessing of the waters will take place, a ceremony that includes diving to retrieve the Holy Cross which the priest throws in the water, according to the Greek Orthodox tradition.
At 11.30am "in our sea, our language, the diving ceremony of the holy cross and the blessing of the waters will take place," said Iacovou.