It’s a tradition only for the most devout followers of the Orthodox faith or those chasing an adrenaline buzz. As elsewhere in the Orthodox world, priests conduct the Great Blessing of the Waters, also known as "the Great Sanctification of the Water" on that day (or the eve before), holes, usually cross-shaped, are then cut into the ice covering rivers and ponds. People queue wearing only their swimsuits or underwear, to jump into the ice-cold water. They belong to two groups: alongside the faithful are those who do it for fun and thrills, known as “walruses”. Not for the faint-hearted, the belief is the ritual of the Epiphany helps purify and harden the body, making it more resilient to illness. Unsure, however, as to whether I want to try it myself, instead I defer to the “experts” – a young but veteran Epiphany swimmer to get his reasons for taking part and a Western doctor for the medical low down on the ritual. But first, where does this tradition come from?
The roots of Epiphany, or Khreshchenya as it is known in Ukraine, date back to 988 when Volodymyr the Great came back from Constantinople, in the then-Byzantine Empire where he was baptised to save the souls of his partial pagans. At that time, the citizens of Kyiv Rus didn’t question the orders of their king, and those who did were quickly forced to change their minds. So, just as Jesus was baptised in the (much warmer) Jordan River, seen as his manifestation to the world as the Son of God, Kyivites were driven into the Dnipro to have their souls purified by dipping themselves three times under the water, honouring the Holy Trinity in a ritual that continues more-or-less unchanged to this day.
For the less intrepid, there is the option of participating in the Epiphany rites conducted inside churches, where priests perform the Great Blessing of Waters, both on Epiphany Eve and Epiphany proper. The water is then distributed to churchgoers who store it to use in times of illness, to bless themselves, family members, and their homes, or to drink. It’s a soft option and I’m more interested in the more extreme ritual of the day.
There are many people for whom the annual dip is not only for religious reasons, but because of the belief it will help ward off illness in the year ahead. One of them is Vitaliy Boychenko, 29, who combines Orthodox views with the idea of balancing his body and mind. An ice-swimming devotee for eight years, he explains what the Epiphany rite means to him: “It’s a religious tradition, as I believe the water on this day obtains miraculous properties that help get rid of sickness and sin” – he explains.
The Ukrainian believes plunging into ice-cold water is a short, sharp, shock to the system that helps to improve his immunity. I tend to take the view that it’s a shock you don’t want to have in your life. Vitaly understands where I’m coming from and confirms that it’s definitely “an experience”. “Once I came for a swim when it was -20C. However, when it’s that cold, the water actually seems comparatively warm.”
As he tells it, it’s the anticipation of the swim that is the most difficult thing to deal with. “The toughest part is walking to the ice-hole in your swimming trunks and bracing yourself for what comes next...you have to dive three times! During the first two, your body is under tremendous stress, but you don’t necessarily feel anything in particular, whereas on the third, it’s actually quite frightening – it feels as though thousands of needles are piercing your body.” Surprisingly, Vitaliy has never feared catching a cold. On the contrary, he, like countless others, is adamant that winter swimming helps protect yourself from disease. And for those who decide to take the plunge on 19 January, Vitaliy has two pointers: “First, force yourself to take off your clothes and second, don’t be afraid of catching a cold – I’ve never met anyone who felt sick after Epiphany swimming.”
Wanting to know more about the swim’s effects on the body and the potential health risks, I invited Dr Richard Styles, our go-to medical expert from American Medical Centre here in Kyiv, to share what he thinks about ice bathing. His response is, perhaps surprisingly, reassuring. Styles explains: “So long as you are fit and healthy, bathing in cold water presents no health risks. However, those with respiratory, circulatory and cardiac conditions should not do this. In general, short periods in cold water – even a cold shower – are thought to be good to stimulate blood supply and possibly the immune system.”
In conclusion, Epiphany swimming is not as foolhardy as you or I might think; however it pays to keep in mind the risks involved. Those risks also increase if you are of a thin-build, as I am, meaning your body can very quickly and dangerously lose core temperature. So...will I take the plunge? Watch this space.
Reheating... How to warm up after ice swimming:
Jog – try this before and after you go into the water
Have a hot drink and meal immediately after swimming
Leave the booze alone – it may help you mentally but will only place more stress on the body
Try rubbing snow on your skin – many believe this boosts the health-giving effect of the swim
Put your newfound vigour to good use, in bed – there’s nothing like a little love to warm the heart