"Epiphany" is one of the most important feasts for Russian Orthodox Christians, with thousands of people from all age groups participating in celebrations across the country. Russians flock to freezing lakes and rivers where, according to religious tradition, the waters are healing and capable of washing away sins. On the night of December 18th, scores of people wait to strip off their clothes and plunge themselves three times into the freezing water.
Police vans and rescue teams are there to track any dangerous activity and provide participants with medical assistance if necessary. The dipping site is a hole in the ice, cut into a cross that symbolizes Christ's sacrifice.
The tradition's challenge begins long before the actual immersion. People are nearly naked in chilling, below-zero temperatures as they wait in line to take the leap. What could possibly lure a curious foreigner to take part in the bathing ritual?
Eric Groza spoke on his personal experience on the icy plunge. Born in California and raised in Hawaii, he immigrated to Russia five years ago and now lives in Moscow, where he works at an advertising agency.
"I thought Russians were crazy for doing it," said Eric, recalling his first impression of the ice dipping tradition. He recalled how the challenge seemed crazy to him — being naked in the cold is hardly a tempting pastime.
However, Eric said that he was one of many thrill seekers taking part in Epiphany (in Russian: Крещение or creschenie) this year. Aside from religious purposes, it's a way to immerse oneself in traditional Russian culture.
"I realized my experience here wouldn't be complete without participating in Epiphany," Eric said.
Although the atmosphere was nothing like that of the California beaches he's used to, Eric isn't skeptical of this tradition anymore. His insightful description of the plunge would make anyone at least consider the freezing bath as a quirky opportunity. He explained how his body experienced a "chemical reaction," one that can make someone feel high.
"By the time you reach the water your feet are already numb from the snow. And once you're inside the water, your body has a strange reaction," said Eric. "Your muscles spasm, attempting to keep the blood circulating. Your body goes into overdrive and delivers a jolt of adrenaline. But when you finally exit the icy water, the winter air seems a lot warmer." Seems tempting enough.
It's hard to imagine a similar experience in California, where the air temperature rarely goes below zero. Air in Moscow gets so cold that cell phones batteries frequently fail in response, and these are the kind of temperatures that feast participants linger in. They do so only to climb down a wooden ladder into water that's equally, if not more, shocking to the body.
There are plenty of accounts of the tradition's invigorating effects available on the web, but there is nothing more encouraging than a recommendation from this California native. Eric believes one must participate in "Epiphany" to fully understand the experience.
"Fast forward to 5 years later, and I understand I'm more Russian than I think I am," Eric reflected. Indeed, the icy plunge seems to be a sure way to immerse oneself in Russian culture.
Mariia Kovaleva is a Staff Reporter, reach her here.