Ta Fota – The Lights

I can not remember if I ever watched the ‘great blessing of the waters’ ceremony in Ta Fota feast live in the shores of Golden Horn or on TV. My memories are quite vague about it.

The only clear thing is I watched it always with excitement. And with a thrill, the moment I see the men jumping into the cold waters of Bosphorus without any hesitation.

I am talking about the feast Ta Fota, called by the Greeks of Istanbul. It is also known as Ton Foton (in modern Greek pronunciation, ‘the day of the lights’), Theophany (vision of God) or Epiphany (striking appearance). The traditional date for the feast is January 6.

In this feast, Eastern Christians commemorate the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, seen as his manifestation to the world as the Son of God. The feast celebrates the revelation of God the Son as a human being in Jesus Christ. In Western Christianity, the feast commemorates the visit of the Magi to the Christ child, and thus Jesus’ physical manifestation to the Gentiles. There is a major difference between Eastern and Western Churches precisely which events the feast commemorates.

Istanbul is and always has been the major spot of the Ta Fota as the church of St. George in Fener is the fifth church in Constantinople to house the Ecumenical Patriarchate since the 15th century. As Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew occupies the First Throne of the worldwide Orthodox Christian Church. Transcending national and ethnic borders, the Ecumenical Patriarch is the spiritual leader to 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide.

Today, less than 3.000 Greeks are living in Turkey. Most of them in Istanbul, generally in modern regions as Kurtuluş, Nişantaşı, Şişli and Kadıköy. There are many Greek churches In Kumkapı, Karagümrük, Samatya and Balat (remaining Greek quarters, the historical parts of Istanbul) but only a few Greek people living in these very ancient Greek quarters. Even in Fener where the patriarchate is located, unfortunately there are less then 100 Greeks are living today.

Going back to Ta Fota, following the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, the Ecumenical Patriarch led the traditional blessing of the waters and the throwing of the cross at the Golden Horn in the Bosphorus. At the end of the ceremony the Ecumenical Patriarch blesses the waters. He does this by throwing a wooden cross into the water and any number of volunteers who wait in the rowboats try to retrieve the cross by jumping into the icy waters for good luck. The person who gets the cross first swims back and returns it to the Ecumenical Patriarch, who then delivers a special blessing and a golden cross to the swimmer. The volunteers joins (well used to join) to the ceremonies not only from Istanbul but from all over the world.

It also marks the end of the traditional ban on sailing wishing fruitfulness, as the tumultuous winter seas are cleansed of the mischief-prone Kalikántzaroi, the goblins that try to torment Christians through the festive season.

The ceremonies took place on the shores of Istanbul for centuries and should you wish to come upon one of them, you can visit Ecumenical Patriarchate St. George in Fener, Aya Yorgi Greek Orthodox Church in Çengelköy, Aya Stefanos Greek Orthodox Church in Yeşilköy or Ayios Fokas Greek Orthodox Church in Ortaköy from the early morning.