Jumping in Frozen Water in Ukraine is More Than a Dare

International media flock to the Dnipro River in the frozen month of January to witness the hardy and the faithful jump into the frosty waters. Known as winter walruses in some parts of the world, these swimmers are not simply executing a dare made over a shot of vodka. The nineteenth of January marks the end of the Christmas season for Ukrainians following the Julian calendar and commemorates the baptism of Christ by John in the River Jordan. In Ukraine, the date also marks the arrival of Christianity in the ancient Kyivan Russia.

The night before ancient celebrations of Orthodox Epiphany, Ukrainians prepared ritual dishes of kutya, a dish of wheat and nuts, and podpalok, a honey cookie, and fasted. After dinner, the villagers gathered near the closest river or other body of water, the villagers to wait for the local priest to come and place his cross in the water to make it holy. Ukrainian peasants cut a cross in the ice, inserted their wooden cross vertically in the water, and poured beet juice upon it until it turned red. Decorating the cross with flowers and pine branches, the villagers filled bottles with enough Epiphany water to last the coming year. The water was considered to be both a medicine as well as a tool to save the family from evil spirits. Also known as the Blessing of the Water, Orthodox Epiphany is still celebrated and welcomes the wedding season, a time for rest and entertainment.

Today, villagers and metro dwellers alike no longer gather by a river, but celebrate Orthodox Epiphany in the warmth of their churches. Priests offer vessels of blessed water to their congregations to keep them save throughout the year. With the passing of the Epiphany and the Christmas season, thoughts turn to spring and the promise of a bountiful harvest in fall.