Blessing the Sea and Diving for the Cross, KentJust as these lands enjoy Viking customs – Up Helly Aa for example in Shetland, and Tynwald Day in the Isle of Man – brought by a people who came here more than a thousand years ago, so have they been enriched by the more recent arrival of the Greek Cypriot community and its customs.
The feast of the Epiphany in January is a significant date in the Greek Orthodox calendar, with various traditions attaching to it. The most spectacular is the Blessing of the Sea – not unique to the Orthodox Church of course – with a particular Greek twist to the event held annually at Margate , namely diving for the cross thrown into the icy waters of the English Channel. In the Aegean the temperature of the waters in January will be rather different from those encountered at Margate then. In spite of the inevitable cold the event is attended by large numbers of people of Greek origin, and often by diplomats from the Greece and Cypriot embassies.
Before the Blessing the Sea , traditionally carried out by the Orthodox Archbishop of Great Britain, there is a church service and a procession, and after it a lunch. No self-respecting Greek passes up the opportunity for a big lunch celebration. Rosemary sprigs are handed out at the blessing, rosemary being rather easier to obtain here than olive. Then an ornate cross is thrown by the Archbishop into the sea, albeit not too far, for a young person to dive after it and bring the treasure back. The immersion is said to symbolise the baptism of Christ.
A similar event used to be held in Great Yarmouth , which for a time in the 1970s and early 1980s had the second biggest Greek Cypriot community in England. There a cross was thrown into the sea for young men to dive after it in competition with one another. The cross was not recovered every year, perhaps because of the competitive element creating some confusion under the waters; failure to recover the cross is considered very bad luck.
More British Folk Customs?