ISTANBUL — Orthodox Christian worshippers plunged into chilly waters across southern and eastern Europe on Friday to retrieve crucifixes in ceremonies commemorating the baptism of Jesus Christ.
Hundreds of members of Istanbul's tiny Greek Orthodox community and tourists from neighboring Greece attended the Epiphany ceremony of the Blessing of the Waters. About 20 faithful leaped into the wintry waters of the Golden Horn inlet to retrieve a wooden cross thrown by the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.
Apostolos Oikonomou, a 40-year-old Greek participating in the swim for the fourth year, clinched the cross. "This year I was the lucky guy," he said. "I wish everybody peace and happy new year."
Christians worldwide celebrate the feast of Epiphany as Jesus' revelation to the world as the son of God. While Western Christians mark it as the day the biblical Magi are said to have arrived to view the baby Jesus, Orthodox Christians commemorate Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River.
Some Orthodox Christian churches, including those in Russia, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, follow a different calendar, and Friday was Christmas Eve, with Epiphany on Jan. 19.
In Bulgaria, young men marked Epiphany by jumping into rivers and lakes to recover crucifixes cast by priests in an old ritual. Tradition there holds that the person who retrieves a cross will be freed from evil spirits.
Priests of Bulgaria's Orthodox Church said prayers for prosperity and blessed the colors of army units, a tradition abandoned by the communist regime in 1946 and re-established in 1992. President Georgi Parvanov greeted the military parade in Sofia, the capital.
In the mountain city of Kalofer, in central Bulgaria, 200 men in traditional dress waded into the icy Tundzha River with national flags. Inspired by the music of a folk orchestra and by homemade plum brandy, they danced a slow "mazhko horo," or men's dance, stomping on the rocky riverbed. Led by the town's mayor, a bass drummer and several bagpipers, the men danced for nearly an hour, up to their waists in the cold water, pushing away floating chunks of ice.
In the Romanian village of Petrosani, north of Bucharest, some 1,000 villagers gathered for a traditional blessing of horses to give thanks for the animals who play an important role in sustaining livelihoods.
"They drag wood and stones for us, and this is a celebration for them too," said Catalin Ristea, a 20-year-old agricultural worker, sporting a cowboy hat on his blonde-streaked hair.
Orthodox priests sprinkled more than a dozen horses with holy water, and horses took part in impromptu log-dragging competitions cheered on by villagers. A tiny Shetland was the star of Epiphany as it doggedly pulled a cart weighed down with 10 locals.
Friday's celebration was crowned by a horse race as riders without saddles or stirrups charged across the misty fields. Villagers ate spicy meatballs cooked on an open grill and washed down with red wine, while children enjoyed swirls of pink candy floss.
In Istanbul, dozens of police in riot gear stood guard at the outdoor Epiphany ceremony as a precaution following past protests by nationalists against the Patriarchate, which dates from the Byzantine Empire.
Bartholomew has called for the reopening of a theology school on an island near Istanbul that trained generations of church leaders, including himself, until it was closed by Turkey in 1971 under a law that put religious and military training under state control. The Halki Theological School closed its doors entirely in 1985, when the last five students graduated.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who met Bartholomew on a visit to Turkey last month, said he hoped Turkey would reopen the seminary.
For years, Turkey has said it is working on a formula that could pave the way for the reopening of the seminary. In August, Turkey's government said it was returning hundreds of properties confiscated from the country's Christian and Jewish minorities over the past 75 years in a gesture to the religious groups, who say they still face discrimination.
In Kosovo, minority Serbs who live surrounded by Albanians in the enclave of Gracanica rose early Friday in bitterly cold weather and cut down oak trees from nearby woods, gathering branches to adorn the entrance to their houses as tradition dictates.
Kosovo was the ancient seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has hundreds of monasteries and churches in a region dominated by ethnic Albanians. Kosovo seceded from Serbia in 2008, but Belgrade rejects its claim to statehood. Albanians in Kosovo are mostly Muslim.
Many Roman Catholics also marked Epiphany on Friday. Across Poland, believers celebrated with religious processions, including a gathering in Warsaw attended by thousands. The Communists banned Poles celebrating Epiphany and it was only reinstated as a state holiday in 2011.
Led by Warsaw Archbishop Kazimierz Nycz, people walked through the city center, sometimes singing religious songs, in a procession that featured camels and people dressed up as the three kings visiting Jesus or in medieval-style clothing.
Associated Press writers Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Turkey, Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, Nebi Qena in Pristina, Kosovo and Alison Mutler in Petrosani, Romania, contributed.