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The Floating Cross and Other Epiphany Traditions

Would you swim in the frozen waters during Romania’s coldest month to fetch a cross thrown by the Priest? Some wouldn’t - but many would. Or so the tradition proved for the past hundreds of years. Learn about Romania’s most astonishing Epiphany traditions.

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A man kisses wooden crosses thrown by Orthodox archbishop in the Danube river
A man kisses one of three wooden crosses blessed and thrown by Orthodox Archbishop Teodosie in the Danube River during a religious service around the celebration of Epiphany. Photo: AP / Associated Press / East News

Each country has its own indigenous set of traditions and beliefs, many of which pertain to culture, history, and, more often than not, religion. It is no wonder that most of the celebrations found in the Orthodox (and not only) calendar are accompanied by various commons that people cheerfully and carefully commit to every year.

Romania’s Epiphany Traditions

Some can be fulfilled in a matter of seconds and are as easy to complete as a walk in the park, while others truly test the faith of the believer. One such tradition takes place every year in January, and it involves insanely cold water, swimming, and tight competition for the Priest’s special blessing. 

Braving icy waters for a bit of luck

Each year, on the occasion of Epiphany (6 January), young men jump head-first into the icy waters of Romania’s rivers for luck and blessings for the new year. Right after the 6 January service, the entire congregation, led by the priest, marches toward the nearest (if possible) river. There, fighting cold and frosty waters, the most determined and courageous young men dive into the cold river, eyes and minds set on one thing: retrieving the holy cross that has been tossed into the swirling waters.

The competition is fierce, for the stakes are big. No one would dare carry out such an ambitious challenge if it weren’t for a great cause or high reward. And in this case, it’s both. The ceremony is believed to showcase the baptism of Jesus Christ while simultaneously symbolizing events such as Peter’s walk on water.

Back in the day, the event was celebrated with the presence of the royal family, and the winner was to receive not only a blessing from the priest but also various gifts from the king. From the villagers, the one who would find the cross would inherit respect and appreciation. Today, some municipalities award those courageous enough to plunge into the freezing waters with monetary prizes.

A lasting tradition

You may think such a tradition has lost its appeal throughout the years, but that is not the case. To this day, young men attempt the impossible to testify for their faith, and every year, one amongst the many gets to enjoy the privileges brought upon by the retrieved cross.

But what about the ladies, one may ask? Isn’t there a custom for them too? If that’s your concern, worry not, for there is a special tradition involving some ice, too. If you were to stumble on your feet and fall on any day of the year, it would be considered bad luck. But not if you were to do so on the 6th of January. It would be, in fact, a reason for great celebration, for it means that luck has descended upon you.

The tradition says that if you fall on the ice on this very special day, you will most certainly get married that year. Whom shall you marry, it is up to you not only to choose but to dream the very same night. Ladies are supposed to put basil under their pillows, and their loved one is presumed to appear in a dream that night. 

The events and traditions of the Bobotează, as it is called in Romanian, are certainly one of a kind and are happily expected each year. And while diving into the freezing waters during the coldest months might not be for the faint of heart, it is a celebration, and a challenge, that many commit to year after year.

Naomi Gherman

Master student in Cultural Diplomacy and International Relations at Babeș-Bolyai University, eager to share more about our world's most fascinating stories and people. Romania-based reader, writer and content creator with a strong interest in journalism, foreign languages and politics.

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