Epiphany: A Freezing River Dip in Kyiv
Every year on January 19th in Kyiv, Ukraine, thousands of people gather along the banks and on top of the frozen Dnieper river to find a cross-shaped hole cut out of the ice. Moments later, many of those same people will be peeling off their clothes, layer by layer…
and then dunking themselves in the icy waters.
Celebrating Epiphany in Kyiv
The Orthodox Epiphany holiday is one of the most significant holidays in the Christian Orthodox tradition, celebrating the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River. For many, it is celebrated with a special meal, but this cold dip has come back to the forefront in the last couple of decades.
For some, this is an event of religious significance, following in the footsteps and reenacting an event from their faith. For others, it’s a tradition that has more to do with sharing an experience with friends, and what are seen as the potential health benefits.
High up above the banks of the Dnieper River, you can already see hundreds of people down at the river. The air is crisp, but the sun is out and the blue sky is in full force. It’s a lovely change from the past week and a half here.
Heading down, passing through the steam coming off of a few food stalls cooking up warm broth and sausages to grab for a snack on the go. The speakers on the coffee truck are playing modern, upbeat tunes. Although the staff are churning through customers quickly, it still has a line. A warm beverage is king around here.
The crowd thickens with each step towards the river. Right now, it’s all warm jackets, knitted hats, and large mitts to be seen, mostly in black. It’s the usual attire for a winter in Ukraine which is chilly at the best of times, but with extra style points given that we’re here in hip Kyiv.
As I make my way through the crowd, the cross-shape cut out of the river ice is coming into full view. Early in the morning, a priest blesses the water here, making it holy. For me, this isn’t convincing me at all to jump in. But for many others, it’s just what they are looking for.
On the frozen ice of the river, people begin to disrobe. Big & cozy jackets come off first, then the mid-layer and shirt. Warm hats are next, winter boots and socks followed by pants and tights. Layers are important to enjoy (and survive) the season here. Most people entrust their clothes to a friend, while others just pile them on the ground on a small towel they have brought along. At this point, participants are down to just their underwear. For an exceptionally brave few, they keep going with the last layer until every last bit of skin is on display and open to the potential of frostbite.
With bare feet walking across the ice of the river, people jostle for position towards the “entrance” of the cross.
Those finishing their “Epiphany” experience are typically pretty excited to get out of the water. Navigating that is just part of the battle, while building up the courage to take your body on a journey from freezing air to freezing water. There is no time to waste when this exposed.
Emergency crew are on site, with a rescue boat that is almost larger than the cross itself. There are also a pair of divers in dry suits ready in case they need to jump in at a moment’s notice. This fazes no one.
The first thing you notice is the look on a person’s face as they enter the water. The body does not expect the sensations it receives, and frankly the brain doesn’t really understand what is happening. Contorted expressions and scrunched up shoulders are the norm as people push through into the deeper water about 5-8m (15-25ft) out from the shore. The process from here is pretty quick, and no one is hanging around in the water and joyfully splashing their friends.
Then, the dunk. For most, this is a triple-dunk of their entire head below the water. Straight up, straight down. Repeat… often gasping for air in between, as the shock of the cold reminds the brain that staying alive with this surprise is key. For many, an animal-like swinging-of-the-head happens as they emerge to toss the water away like a dog hopping out of the pool.
In terms of demographics, men do outnumber women when it comes to participation here, maybe 5-1. And women rarely dunked their heads below water. I have no other evidence to support this for you today, but perhaps it is decisions like this that help to explain why women generally live longer than men.
And just like that, they file out of the water with their dripping bodies, back across their ice and towards their pile of clothes. There are no change rooms here, and no heated areas. Just standing with one foot on the ice while drying off a foot and leg enough to get a sock and a boot on. Then repeating through each body part until covered once again.
Watching dozens and dozens of people head into the Dnieper River, I never saw one person touch the water and then head back out without going all of the way in. The commitment once the clothes come off is strong.
People told me they felt invigorated and warm afterward, despite what I myself both thought and felt on their behalf while covered up in my own warm layers. Laughter was the most common sound coming from people’s vocal cords rather than shrieks… though there were a few of those too.
Everyone files away and gets on with their day. Maybe some mulled wine or a warm snack from one of the sellers is in order, or a sit down in one of the local hip cafes nearby. Until next year…
This yearly event happens on January 19th in Kyiv, around Ukraine, and several other countries in the region with large Orthodox populations (Belarus, Russia, Serbia).