Theophany or Epiphany closes the twelve-days of Christmas, which began on Christmas Eve and was celebrated through various customs. Everything is ready at the holy churches of Zakynthos for the blessed celebration of the Sanctification and Epiphany, recalling the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan River in which the priest sanctifies the water with blessings, the invocation of the Holy Spirit and triple baptism of the Holy Cross in the water. This year however, will be completely different as the religious ceremonies will be preformed behind closed doors, covid-19 has made it impossible for gatherings. So, this year Zakynthians will be celebrating at home but their traditions will still be kept alive.
Beyond the ritual of Epiphany, every church is adorned with twigs of bitter-oranges, leaves of bitter-oranges and sword-shaped leaves from plants , the tradition is brought into the churches and homes as they say it was these that grew along the banks of the Jordan River.
Also, on the day of Epiphany the chandeliers are decorated with bunches of bitter-oranges and oranges, but also some icons inside the church are decorated with the leaves from the fruit bearing tree. Even the faithful place, on the stand that has been set up within the church and where the ritual of the sanctification will take place, bunches of oranges, to be baptized by the priests.
The priests, holding in their hands the Cross and sanctuaries,
which are made up of flowers: lavender, daffodils, chrysanthemums and bitter-orange leaves, following established standards, invoking Gods blessing, proceed to the Blessing of the water.
In the Iconostasis
In the celebration of Epiphany, another custom is to decorate the icons. In the iconostasis of the house, with bitter-orange leaves. In the central icon a bitter-orange is placed, which stays there until the morning of ‘Kathari Deftera’ / Shrove Monday. Then they take it out and drink the juice, for sore throats. In celebration of Epiphany, the Zakynthians who are going to church take with them a bunch of oranges, which is dunked into the sanctified water, to be blessed.
On the Eve
On the eve of Epiphany, after the morning service where the Great Sanctuary takes place separately the priests, accompanied by the verger and priests-aids, visit the homes of the parishioners and holding the Cross and sanctuaries, carry the blessing of God, chanting “in the flow of the Jordan today …” and sprinkles the house with holy water.
The strange procession
A strange procession (litany) takes place on the eve of Epiphany, in Zakynthos. At 8 pm at the end of Matins, which takes place in the afternoon, with a special procession, which is preceded by the band, the clergy, the authorities and people of the island carry the bishop from the metropolitan church of Agios Nikolaos the ‘Ksenon’ and the Holy Baptist to the Metropolitan Mansion.
There, a multi-members choir says Epiphany carols and he (the bishop) addresses the people with festive greetings, from the balcony. After, everyone goes up and wishes him and he gives them sweets. This is possibly what a foreign traveller saw and wrote that the Zakynthians have processions for all their saints and when there are no more, they have a procession for their bishop.
The different Sanctification
In Zakynthos, during the ceremony of sanctification of the waters on the day of the Epiphany, the Cross is not thrown into the sea but “baptized” by the local Bishop, mounted on a long pole. Also there is a scarf, tied with a thread, with which they wash their eyes, in order not to suffer any illness. The Zakynthians, faithful to their customs and multiple peculiarities of their island, do not easily accept changes. So when, the first non-Ionian Islands bishop, Chrysostomos Dimitriou, one time wanted to change the custom and not listening to anyone (as a bishop) threw the Cross into the sea with a ribbon, all the Zakynthians shouted mockingly: “Are they biting, bishop? Are they biting?” An image reminiscent of fishing. Since then the custom came back and the peculiarity continues.