Orthodox believers celebrate Epiphany with icy dip

January 6, 2013
View photos
Swimmers celebrate together after Lukas Kokinis from Greece, second right, retrieved a wooden cross which was thrown into the waters by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I during a ceremony to bless the water at the Golden Horn in Istanbul, Turkey, Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013. The traditional ceremony marks the Epithany in Istanbul, Turkey, when an Orthodox priest throws a wooden cross into the water and swimmers race to be the first to retrieve it. (AP Photo)

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — Thousands of young men are plunging into icy rivers and lakes across Bulgaria and Romania to retrieve crucifixes cast by priests in an old ritual marking the feast of Epiphany.

By tradition, a wooden cross is cast into the water and it is believed that the person who retrieves it will be freed from evil spirits.

In the central Bulgarian city of Kalofer, 350 men in traditional dress waded into the icy Tundzha River with national flags. Led by the town's mayor and encouraged by a folk orchestra and homemade plum brandy, they dance and stomp in the rocky riverbed.

In the Romanian Black Sea port of Constanta, some 3,000 Orthodox believers turned out to watch priests hurl three crosses into the icy sea. Dozens— some wearing diving suits— dived into the waters to retrieve the crosses.