As I write this it’s -18℃ in Moscow, with sunrise 3 hours away. According to the forecast, the early afternoon will see the day peak at a heady -13℃. ‘Better hold off the beach-wear for now – unless you are a Russian-Orthodox ice-bather, of course. They’ve been at it like crazy again, in crucifix cut “Jordan” pools, chainsawed out of the lake’s ice and blessed by priests. If the congregation is indeed a flock, then this is holy sheep-dip; used for symbolically re-enacting the baptism of Jesus in a frosty penance that only the most dedicated could sustain.
The washing away of sin and illness are the outward aims, although some believe that no sins are left to freeze in the ice because absolution is a state that only a priest can bestow. Rules are rules. Immersion in icey (or just plain: cold) waters has ongoing popularity in some fitness circles, however. I couldn’t possibly comment except to say: perhaps this is where the belief in the washing away of illness stems from.
Whatever the subsequent interpretation, it’s fair to say that Jesus had a much milder experience in the original river Jordan as he submersed in temperatures a good deal more pleasant. Often the only comforts in icy Orthodoxy are faith itself – plus a set of wooden steps and handrails to assist in passage through the freeze. In spite of the ritual’s harsh nature, it has increased in popularity since the end of the Soviet era. In Your Pocket reports:-
“During the time of communism the tradition all but disappeared with the rest of public religious practice, but in recent years this way of marking the Kreschenie (Epiphany) has again become popular. In recent years more than 30,000 thousand people in Moscow alone took the plunge.”
Fun swimmers in contrast
Here, in the UK, we have traditional Christmas day swimmers out in temperatures a few degrees above 0℃, but in Russia orderly queues form for a plunge on days that drop down to -25℃, -30℃ and worse! Over in the arctic circle city of Norilsk, the local authorities had to step in and actively ban devotees from partaking in their annual ritual. This, on an Epiphany day scoured by raw, icy winds that saw the temperature drop to -52℃. They would have dived in, too – into waters where survivability is measured in minutes and you can feel your skeleton within its stiffening flesh. It’s another world out there, where the inhabitants are made of sterner stuff.
It’s all over now
Russia is still feeling the Epiphany Frosts; traditionally the most severe of the year, although Epiphany (19th January) and the preceding period of Svyatki (Christmastide) starting on Orthodox Christmas Day (7th January) are now only memories. Although this period is collectively known as “the holidays”, several crucial days are earmarked on the devout Orthodox calendar, as follows:-
January 7th: The Nativity of Christ.
January 8th: The Synaxis of the Most Holy Mother of God.
January 10th: The commemoration of Christ’s relatives “according to the flesh”.
January 11th: The commemoration of 14,000 martyred infants (The Holy Innocents).
January 13th: The leave-taking of the Nativity of Christ.
January 18th: The eve of Theophany.
If you follow the Orthodox faith then you’ll understand each of the above and their significance. I do not (in either case), although stories of the Nativity and the horrors of King Herod did reach every fledgling C of E child, here in the UK. Fasting is expected throughout the Christmastide period, especially on the eve of Theophany, although Wednesdays and Fridays are non-fasting days when a normal diet may be consumed.
Aside from the schedule outlined above, Orthodox devotees are expected to adhere to other conventions of behaviour during this period; caroling and singing hymns, visiting fellow members of the church, attending services held throughout the holidays, and performing works of charity and mercy. These include visiting and assisting the elderly, infirm and orphaned, tending the sick and offering alms to the needy and more. All good stuff – literally.