The 12th day of Christmas…the festival of Epiphany (6 January) is known in Cyprus as ‘Ta Fota’ which means ‘the light’. It is a big festival with celebrations taking place in all the harbours.
The Bishop leads a procession of school children and members of various youth organisations accompanied by the local band along to the harbour. During the Epiphany service, the Bishop dramatically tosses his processional cross into the sea to bless the waters and scores of local lads dive in quickly to retrieve it; he who does is ensured of good luck for the year!
On the day before the Epiphany, the neighbourhood priest passes by the houses of his congregation in order to perform the customary blessing.
Orthodox belief says that it was the day of the baptism of Jesus, and that this is where the day’s association with water arises. But the observance itself may pre-date Christianity. There was, in Roman times, what was said to be a ceremony that opened the season of navigation.
The day is also said to be the date of a festival of emperor-worship, also dating from Roman times. Possibly that, with attendant offerings for the emperor, is the root of this ceremony. Or it may also reflect a survival of the custom of giving precious offerings to sea, river, and spring spirits to assure their benevolence or halt their interference.
On Epiphany, the ‘kallinkantzari’, the malicious spirits who are said to be active during the twelve days of Christmas, are believed to be banished for the rest of the year. Greek housewives traditionally made Loukoumades (tiny honey-soaked doughnuts) on Epiphany to ward off the kallinkantzari. To prevent the evil spirits from bothering the family, the women would toss the Loukoumades onto the roof of the house to appease them and make them go back into the ground where they came from.
Epiphany is also called the Phota or Fota, in reference to the day being a Feast of Light, and it is also the saint’s day for Agia Theofania. While the biggest observance is in Larnaca, other cities also celebrate in a smaller way. Epiphania is a public holiday all over Cyprus and Greece.
Away from the hustle and bustle of the festivities, some of older Cypriots quietly wash their fruit and vegetables in the blessed seawater to ensure that they have a bountiful harvest in the autumn.