Sunday, May 5, 2019

Epiphany in Tarpon Springs

One of the country's most celebrated Epiphany celebrations, which honors the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River more than 2,000 years ago, takes place in Tarpon Springs. This 100-plus year-old Tarpon Springs tradition was a day-long affair, which was highlighted by local teenage boys diving into Spring Bayou to retrieve a cross thrown into the water by an archbishop. The boy who surfaces with the cross is said to have good luck for the following year. What followed was an Epiphany Glendi, a lively gathering with food, drink, and live music. Small community dance and musical groups performed all day. All of the day's events were free.

The drive time to Tarpon Springs, which is north of Clearwater on the Gulf Coast, was about 2 hours.  When Pam Schwartz and I arrived, it was clear that this was going to be a crowded event, since parking was difficult to find. We negotiated our way through side streets until we found an isolated spot. People with lawn chairs walked along with us towards the Bayou. When we got there, the crowd became insanely dense. It was estimated that up to 20 thousand people were there, crowded around the small body of water. Finding a spot with a close enough view to sketch seemed an impossibility. We pressed our way through the crowd until we were directly across from the platform.

Pam found a spot between groups of people where we could squeeze in and sit. I immediately started sketching. Some people had arrived up to 4 hours before the celebration to ensure they had a good view, but we arrived just minutes before the festivities began and sat next to them. Archbishop Demetrious walked out on the platform and recited blessings of the water and the cross. Then the 55 boys who were to take place in the event ran down the dock and jumped into the water. I was amazed none of them were hurt in that crush of humanity. They all then swam out to about 9 row boats and struggled to get into them. Two of the row boats capsized in the chaos. It was clear that the boys were aware of which boats were closest to the likely spot where the cross would sink into the water. It seemed the boys all wanted to get into just a few boats. One boy had a boat to himself. The Archbishop raised the cross into the air and then tossed it into the Bayou.

The water splashed and churned as all the boys dove towards the spot where the cross sank. Within a minute a boy burst back up to the surface triumphant. As the crowd dispersed I continued to add watercolor washes to the sketch. When I was done, Pam and I made our way to a church where Greek food was being served. There were long lines of people waiting to order from tents. We sat by the water to eat. It was a gorgeous day.

We then decided to walk over to the Tarpon Springs dock area where sponge shops and restaurants were. We watched a short film about the history of sponge diving in the area and walked through shops full of sponges, both large and small.

Then came the urge for flaming cheese! We found a Greek restaurant with the one goal of just ordering flaming cheese called Saganaki. A small family sat next to us in the crowded restaurant and when our dish arrived, the waitress ignited the cheese which flailed up with bright hot blue flames. The young daughter was frightened out of her wits, thinking she would be caught on fire. Her reaction alone made ordering the dish worth while.

Before the drive home, we arranged to interview a Pulse survivor who lives on the west coast. This certainly mixed the celebrations of the day with grim reality.

Prints are available for each sketch for $250 and many originals can be purchased for $400. White museum grade shadow box frames are $100 more. You can e-mail Thor at

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