The Great Blessing of Waters on the Neva River during Epiphany. 1876. Source: Das heutige Rußland. Bilder und Schilderungen aus allen Theilen des Europäischen Zarenreichs. Lankenau und Ölsnitz, Leipzig.
Taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BlesssingofWatersNeva.jpg
Romania, Moldova. In Romania and Moldova the Baptism of Christ is celebrated on Epiphany, and people attend the ritual of blessing of waters, and often bathe in the cold winter ponds to purify and protect themselves from diseases. By a folk belief, if a girl slips on ice, or falls into the water on the feast day, she will surely marry within a year.
After the religious services men participate in winter horse races – a special Romanian tradition on Epiphany. During the star singing, the children hold the “stars”, made as stained glass lanterns with an Orthodox icons inside.
Russia. In Russia the feast commemorates the Baptism of Jesus, and many customs are associated to the water. The blessing of waters is usually held in two stages: the first one takes place on the feast’s eve, in the church. In the past, women used to place near the bowls with water some candles decorated with ribbons, for the whole mass. After the blessing of water they would take candles at home and keep them near the icons, using during the year to heal diseases and help during the parturitions.
The second blessing of waters takes place on the proper Epiphany, in the open air. A religious procession brings the faithful from the church to the nearest water source, be it a river, a lake or a pond. In the surface of the water people make an ice-hole in the shape of a cross, called “Iordan” (in honour of the Jordan river where Jesus was baptized). After the ceremony of blessing, people try to wash themselves with the consecrated waters, some even diving inside, to symbolically wash away their sins from the past year. By belief, the water consecrated in this period would stay fresh ever. Besides, it has special healing and protecting powers, thus people take this water to drink it and to bless their homes, members of family, camps and domestic animals.
Also the water from the snow collected on Epiphany was considered “blessed”. People believed that if throwing a bit of this show into a well, it would save the harvest in case of the summer drought. By drawing small crosses with the snow on the doors, windows, stalls and granaries, peasants believed to protect them from the evil spirits.
The period of Epiphany is considered in Russia the best time of the year for divinations, related to the future harvest, health and well-being.
Ukraine. Also in Ukraine the solemn blessing of waters takes place on Epiphany. In the past, there was a tradition to prepare beforehand an ice-hole on the pond, then they would saw out a big cross in ice and decorate it with the pine and fir branches. Near such cross the priest would hold a mass blessing people and waters. During the year, people used that blessed water for healing from diseases, protecting from the evil and lightning. Also the water collected on Epiphany from any source, or water left outside during the night between January 18-19, were considered “automatically” consecrated, and could be used for the same purposes.
Bulgaria. In Bulgaria there is a particular tradition of the “horo dance”, a ritual male dance with drums and bagpipes, performed in ice-cold waters after the blessing ceremony.
Greece, Cyprus. Also in Greece the feast is concentrated around the Baptism and blessing of waters. The blessing in the open air is usually held near the sea. After the consecration the priest casts a cross into the waves, and some volunteers dive to catch it. The one who manages to do it, is considered a very lucky person.
By belief, on Epiphany the winter seas are cleansed of the folk creatures, kallikanzaroi, who tormented all the villages during Christmas period.