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Epiphany's sights, sounds go beyond dive

By NORA KOCH, NICOLE JOHNSON
Published January 7, 2005


  photo

[Times photo: Keri Wiginton]

Andrew McAdams, 17, of,Palm Harbor, is carried into St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral after he retrieved the cross during the 99th Annual Epiphany celebration at Spring Bayou in Tarpon Springs.
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TARPON SPRINGS - Hours before the archbishop tossed the cross, when the teenage divers were still waking up, spectators eager for the best view already lined the rim of Spring Bayou.

Beatrice and Don Tymko arrived first, about 8 a.m. - five hours before the dive. The couple drove 35 hours from Winnipeg, Manitoba, specifically for the event and didn't want to miss the show.

After seeing a commercial about Tarpon Springs' Epiphany celebration on TV in Canada, they planned to visit Epiphany City just for a day, but after arriving decided to stick around for six.

If they weren't in Tarpon Springs on Thursday, the devout Ukrainian Catholic couple would be celebrating Epiphany at their church in Canada. There, instead of sitting in brand-new beach chairs, they would take part in religious observances that include cutting the shape of a cross into the icy surface of a frozen lake.

* * *

The Tarpon Springs police dive team brought up the first prize of the day.

As they do every year, police divers swept the bayou the morning of the event for trash, dangerous objects and contraband. (Six years ago, a prankster threw 22 fake crosses into the bayou before the event.)

Thursday morning, they came up with a couple of beer and soda cans and a quarter. Officer John Ulrich gave the coin to a kid on shore.

* * *

Helen Kostakos and Vickie Bouth remember the Epiphany celebrations of their younger days in Laconia, Greece.

There, a priest would dip the basil in a copper pot filled with water, followed by the cross. He would throw the holy water on each of the town's young men who had lined up for the celebration. Each held a candle. Every town did their own Epiphany celebration, Kostakos said.

"It was symbolic of being blessed," said Kostakos, 63, in a thick Greek accent, dressed regally in a long ivory jacket and black heels.

"Everyone in the town came to see it," said Bouth, 65.

Thursday, decades after the Laconia celebrations, Kostakos and Bouth experienced their first Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs. Both now live in Clearwater. Their friend, Angeline Grenier, 76, of Clearwater came with them.

"I've seen it eight times," Grenier said. "But I wanted them to experience it for themselves here; it's a tradition we hold dear."

* * *

Christo Vassiliou points to the spot where he sat with his 3-year-old son, Spyro, on the edge of Spring Bayou years ago.

"I sat right there and told him,"You will be doing this one day,"' said Vassiliou, 43, who made the leap himself as a teenager.

Thursday, Vassiliou's words came true as Spyro, now 17 and a junior at Tarpon Springs High School, dived for the cross.

"From the (time) I woke up this morning I had a smile on my face ready to split," said his father, the assistant manager for United Rental Cars.

Like the elder Vassiliou, dozens wedged into a designated section for parents and families of cross divers.

"Swim my boy, swim!," said Emmanouel Tsambarlis, 65. His son, Stratos, 16, a senior at Tarpon Springs High School, was diving for the first time.

"I tell him, it doesn't matter if you win; it's just good to try," said Tsambarlis, a retired employee for Ohio Energy and a native of the Greek island of Kalymnos.

As the cross retriever emerged from the water, some parents cried, others stood frozen.

Vassiliou rapidly snapped pictures with his digital camera, still smiling.

* * *

Andreas Tzakis, 54, a transplant surgeon at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, treks to Tarpon Springs every year for the Epiphany.

The annual festival gives him a chance to celebrate his Greek heritage - and to check up on his patients.

On Thursday afternoon he met up with a group of local transplant patients, including Father Tryfon Theophilopoulos.

"We're like relatives," said Faye Andriotis, 60, who received a liver transplant 12 years ago.

Tzakis said Father Tryfon is doing well after his November kidney transplant.

"We are still monitoring him closely," Tzakis said. "I have advised him to go slowly."

Father Tryfon's wife, Helen, said the dean emeritus of St. Nicholas enjoyed watching the ceremony from his son's house and is eager to participate in the 100th Epiphany next year.

* * *

Louis Mantzanas, 66, dove into Spring Bayou on Epiphany four times as a teenager in the 1950s, but he "never even got close to the cross."

This year, the Tarpon Springs resident spent the day manning the St. Nicholas Boat Line parking lot by the Sponge Docks while his family members stood beside the bayou.

"I have to work today," said Mantzanas, 66, a former chef at Morton Plant Hospital. "That's what happens when you retire."

* * *

At the Glendi celebration in Craig Park, tourists and locals alike scrambled to buy pastries at St. Nicholas Philoptochos. Baklava, finikia and Greek wedding cookies were on sale for $1, and $3 would buy a piece of spinach pie or cheesecake.

"We're going crazy," said Andi Stavrakis as she frantically sliced baklava at 1:45 p.m. "We've already run out of cheesecake."

* * *

It was the first Epiphany for Yvonne Allen-Brown, 40, of Holiday.

She brought a disposable camera and a paper cutout of "Flat Stanley," which she recently received in the mail from a family friend in Connecticut.

As part of a class project, Allen-Brown snapped a few pictures of the popular children's book character with the crowd. She will send the photos back to her friend so she can share them with her second-grade class.

"If anyone hasn't heard of the Epiphany, they will learn," she said.

[Last modified January 7, 2005, 03:39:52]


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