January 19 is a holiday in the Orthodox tradition commemorating the baptism of Jesus. On this day all the waters become holy.
Believers, revelers, and exhibitionists alike wade out naked into the rivers and lakes in a ritualistic freezing bath. Many then drink plentifully to warm themselves and become stumblingly drunk. In Kiev, the whole city was abuzz with talk of the holiday. All day, locals made their way to the banks of the Dnieper to shed their clothes and dip into the freezing river. "I went to the river this morning before work," one young Ukrainian, Dima, said. "I feel so energized after it."
Many Ukrainians take mysticism and superstition very seriously. Those holiday traditions that we observe as entertaining cultural remnants are often treated seriously in this part of the world, especially by older people. "I stayed up until midnight last night so that I could fill up water bottles from my sink," a middle-aged Kiev native named Katya said. "At midnight, the earth blooms as the water becomes blessed. It's very healthy to drink it." Several people mentioned how it was physically impossible to get sick from swimming in the freezing water.
At first, I thought people were playing around, like how we pretend to believe in ghosts on Halloween and Santa Claus at Christmas. But, the more I asked about it the more I came to understand that this was not a holiday story for kids. Many people were under the real impression that the water possessed some material holy quality. Ever the skeptic, I was on the lookout for any signs of the divine all day and decided to join up with some friends to go swim that evening.
After my morning shower in the blessed water I felt my usual self. I washed down my breakfast of hot dogs and pickles with tea, which should have been blessed. The day passed uneventfully and altogether of this world. That evening, a large group assembled at the metro near Gidropark, on the banks of the Dnieper. By this time the sun had set and the temperature had dropped to -10 C. We walked down towards the river where a large crowd had amassed. As we came closer several grown men were running out of the water completely naked, penises a-flopping for all to see.
Down on the bank I started to undress. I didn't realize how biting the cold was until I took off my shirt and felt the wind blow right through the tissue of my chest. I took off one shoe and put my foot down on the snow-covered sand. In the time it took to take off the other shoe, my toes had gone completely numb. Running to the water, one of the other guys slipped on the ice and slid in on his back. I ran in and submerged myself, too numb already to feel much additional shock from the cold. The river was filthy and freezing, but it was probably warmer in the water than on the bank with the wind chill.
Back on land, I was jumping up and down to give my feet a break from the snow. Toes and feet had become painfully cold, legs were too numb to feel. The hair on my head had already frozen into little hedgehog needles. With no spot to change, no towel and no time to waste, I joined the locals and stripped naked there on the bank. My bathing suit had frozen completely to the contours of my hips and legs as I pulled on my long johns and pants.
On the way to the metro, other swimmers who were now stumbling so drunkenly that one of them fell right into one of the girls we were with. I was feeling anything but blessed. My toes were painfully sore and I thought I might have gotten some mild frostbite. At the bar afterwards, we all sat and merrily passed around the cameras looking at pictures from the swim. After a few rounds of drinks I think I started to feel something of the holiness in the water.