118th Epiphany in Tarpon Springs largest celebration outside of Greece

The skies parted Saturday afternoon in Tarpon Springs for the 118th Epiphany, a long-standing tradition in the Greek Orthodox community.

Sixteen-year-old John Paul Hittos from Clearwater retrieved the cross in a matter of minutes, symbolizing blessings for him and his family for the next year.

It was a soggy start to the day with torrential downpours and wind, but around 10:00 a.m., the sun started to peak out. A church service was held at 8 a.m. at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

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Then, a procession that included the 65 teenaged boy divers and His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America, Archbishop Nikitas (Lulias) of Thyatera & Great Britain and Bishop Sevastianos of Zelon, made its way to Spring Bayou.

The Archbishop of America blessed the water, 17-year-old Tarpon Springs native Chloe Kotis released a dove signifying the Holy Spirit and the Archbishop threw a wooden cross into Spring Bayou. The boys dove in after it.

“I didn’t really know what was happening,” Hittos said. “I was just full of adrenaline. It was just a feeling. I jumped when I felt like it. I didn’t see where the cross was. I dove down. I didn’t see where it was in the water and until it was up against my face and then it was in my hand,” Hittos said.

Hittos goes to Holy Trinity Church in Clearwater and is a junior at Calvary Christian High School. He plays lacrosse, the piano, fishes and is one of five kids. His brother had a dream just days ago he’d retrieve the cross.

“I thought it was just a dream, but it clearly meant something,” Hittos said.

Hittos is the first in his family to retrieve the cross, and Saturday was his first Epiphany dive, but his parents have prepped him for a while.

“We have started this family tradition when they were little, we’d make them dive in our cold pool just to get ready for diving for the cross,” Sarah Hittos, John Hittos’ mother, said.

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“I’m super proud of him. He’s deservant, very deservant. I wish nothing but a great year for him,” Sarah Hittos said.

Sarah Hittos said she knew right away it was her son who retrieved the cross.

“I could hear his voice from as far away because he’s got the loudest voice and I knew it was him and everyone’s like, ‘How do you know?’ And I’m like, ‘It’s his voice. I heard him,’” she said.

The other young men carried Hittos on their shoulders down the block to St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral shouting Axios, meaning worthy.

While it was a soggy start, the weather didn’t deter the crowds.

“I think we were here by 8:30, and it was pouring,” Lisa Gingola, who has been coming to the celebration with her husband Carl for decades, said.

“We’re both retired, so we just decided we’ll just get wet on this one, and this is our first one in the rain, and we figured if the boys can do this, we can do this too,” Gingola said.

The skies cleared just in time, though.

“It feels amazing. I feel blessed. I’m incredibly grateful and thankful. I’m so blessed to have this opportunity and have to been able to do this. And I’m glad my parents encouraged me to dive and encouraged me to do this. I’m just extremely grateful,” Hittos said.

“I really hope for nothing but health for my family, my friends, those I hold dear, those I love. I just want them to be blessed as well. Every other boy who entered that water as well, the water is blessed. We’re all blessed. Everyone who had the opportunity to participate is blessed. It’s truly a wonderful and beautiful experience,” Hittos said.

The festivities continued throughout the afternoon with food, music and dancing at the Glendi celebration, and the Epiphany Ball Saturday night.

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