Letter from Europe

Breaking the Ice

Issue no. 2021/1

Picture above: Celebrating the Feast of the Theophany in Russia (photo © Tsargvidon / dreamstime.com)


This weekend sees the annual ritual of the opening of the ice in anticipation of the Orthodox Feast of the Theophany on Tuesday. Often this is done by creating a hole in the shape of a cross, allowing the faithful to totally immerse themselves in icy waters.

Dear fellow travellers

Across much of eastern Europe, lakes are well and truly frozen by mid-January. With temperatures below minus 30 degrees Celsius in some areas this past week, it is now perfectly safe to venture out on the ice.

This weekend sees the annual ritual of the opening of the ice in anticipation of the Orthodox Feast of the Theophany on Tuesday. And it’s essential to cut open the ice to allow for the total immersion in icy water which is a hallmark of Theophany celebrations in Russia, Ukraine and many other parts of eastern Europe.

In western Christianity, the Feast of the Epiphany is celebrated on 6 January - and it’s most widely known as marking the moment when three kings from afar (the Magi), following a star, arrived to pay homage to the infant Jesus. The Orthodox Churches, following the old calendrical tradition, have a similar feast on 19 January, generally calling it Theophany rather than Epiphany. The eastern emphasis is on recalling Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan, and those of the faithful of a hardy disposition are inclined to imitate Christ’s triple immersion by entering a hole in an icy lake and making sure that they dip thrice below the surface of the water.

It is, a Russian friend tells us, a useful annual check on how robust is her cardiovascular system, but she says it’s good for her soul too. In some communities the cutting open of the ice is done so as to expose a large hole in the shape of the Orthodox Cross - with its distinctive three cross-beams, the lower one always slanted. Ice sculptures in cruciform shapes may be constructed around the edge of the opening in the ice.

And what if there is no ice? Well, people still dive into lakes or the sea on 19 January, more than on any other winter day, and in some places there are other Theophany rituals. One we have come across is where the priests in a community take to a boat and then cast a large wooden crucifix into the waters. The faithful then dive in and save the cross.

The formal blessing of the waters is a key element of Orthodox tradition. And that takes place even in the formidable cold of Siberia. Opening the ice a day or two in advance of the Theophany is all part of the anticipation of the great blessings to come. In some places, a blowtorch may serve as a useful liturgical accessory to prevent the waters from freezing over.

In some countries, ice swimming has a general popularity that transcends the specific devotional antics around the religious celebrations on 19 January. In Finland, for example, taking a dip in a frozen lake is an established winter sport; it is called avantouinti and appeals to Finns of all ages.

From the White Sea to the Carpathians, from the shores of the Baltic east to the Urals, this coming Tuesday sees a remarkable piece of chilly devotional theatre as thousands of people who would not think of themselves as ice swimmers take to the water.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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