Saturday, 21 January 2017 19:36

Epiphany in Russia - bracing the icy waters - PHOTO GALLERY

I had seen pictures of people immersing themselves in frozen lakes and rivers - it is hard to imagine.  During my recent visit to Moscow, I got to witness this tradition dating back to Czarist times - Epiphany, celebrated in Russia on January 19, marks the baptism of Jesus in the Orthodox Church.

Some worshippers celebrate at church, while others go to a nearby lake or river to dip themselves three times under the water, honoring the Holy Trinity, to symbolically wash away their sins from the past year, and to experience a sense of spiritual rebirth.

We first went to mass - it was packed for that special day with throngs of people lining even the entrance hall to the church. Myrrh and candle smoke and the sounds of a choir wafted our way (here a video) as we squeezed through the crowd; for me to get a glimpse of the inside and for my friend to attend mass.


A walk in the park

We only stayed for a short while, then drove to a nearby forest park where the ritual would be performed. It was a cloudy, grey day of minus 9°C with a biting cold wind blowing, making us pull up our coats’ collars even higher and turning the thought of taking them off, let alone jumping into minus 19°C cold water, unthinkable.

Unsure of the exact location, we soon spotted people holding plastic bags with swimwear and towels inside and followed them. In fact, we chatted with two elderly ladies and one couple about their annual ritual. One of the ladies was wrapped in silence, while her friend, who had come for moral support, chattered on cheerfully. The man of the couple brushed our admiration away ‘It’s just adrenaline’ while his wife admitted that there was no way she could do this.


A well-organized affair

I had no idea what to expect, but when we arrived I was surprised to see how well set up it all was. There were two large tents - one for men and one for women - to change and warm up after their dip. Big burgundy towels and beige felt hats were handed out.

A path of wooden boards, covered with rubber mats and surrounded by a carpet of hay, led to the edge of the water a few meters away where wooden staircases had been immersed into rectangles cut into the ice. 

There was medical staff and an ambulance, guards in big warm security suits, assisting people to go down the stairs, asking how they felt, if they needed anything, if this was their first time... I was standing there in amazement, transfixed by those faces emerging from that cold water. Actually, I was told one does not feel the cold as such when one gets out of the water as the skin is burning like covered with thousands of little needles.


A cheerful sense of community

At first there were only about 30 people, but later one it got more and more crowded with at least 100 people - participants and onlookers. There were camera men, photographers and lots of friends and family to support the brave worshippers. Many wished each other ‘S’prazdnikom!’ - ‘Happy Holiday!’

The atmosphere was light and playful, with many people laughing and joking, encouraging each other, others being more serene, like in meditation. Some walked straight back to the tent after their dip, wrapped into a big towel, others stuck around for a bit to talk and pose for pictures with friends.

However, when they emerged for the ice cold water, they all had the same look on their face - stunned by the cold, but showing a deep happiness, some serious, others laughing out loud. My friend asked one very peaceful looking man about the experience and he simply said, “There is nothing to worry about, it is all in the hands of God.” 



Mary Anglberger

I’ve been travelling the world for over 20 years teaching English and am now taking time to follow my passion for photography and writing. I want to share all the things, events and people that have inspired and inspire me and spread those positive vibes all around.

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