Magic of Epiphany in Serbia

The Feast of Epiphany, which according to the Julian calendar falls on January 19, is the day with some of the most colourful rituals in Serbia as it marks the end of Christmastide.

Given it is the day when, according to the New Testament, Jesus’s divine mission became apparent to the masses after his baptism in the river Jordan, most of the folk rituals surrounding it have to do with water.

If you walk around Belgrade you will see huge lines in front of churches as the faithful stand to get their fill of Epiphany holy water – which is considered especially blessed. This holy water is drunk throughout the year whenever one is feeling ill or needs a blessing – when going for a journey, an important meeting or a test.

More recently, Epiphany became synonymous with winter swims, where hardy gents (and a few ladies) decide to compete in swimming after a wooden cross thrown into the river by a priest after the morning service. It is believed that all those competing (and especially the winner) are getting their share of blessings for engaging in such a tough feat (albeit the winters are no longer as freezing as they used to be).

Although revived and popularised after the fall of socialism in Serbia (and the rest of Eastern Europe, especially Russia) it is unclear how common it was before WWII: some claim it was done en masse from times immemorial, others associate it more with the (Winter) Feast of the Cross (Krstovdan) which falls on January 18, while others think it is completely new and introduced only in 1990s. My great-grandmother, who lived in pre-WWII Belgrade told my mother that the men of Sokol society and other hardy gents of the era used to swim in the Sava every Epiphany. No mater what, it is fun to watch, and most popular places to do so in Belgrade are at Ada Ciganlija, on Zemun’s promenade by the Danube or in front of Milan Gale Muškatirović sports centre in Dorćol. The swim traditionally starts at noon and ends after about half an hour.

At last but not the least, make sure you look at the skies at midnight (to preceding Epiphany to catch a glimpse of Heaven and make a wish. But be careful, the first thing you think of when you look up will come true.

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