The Twelfth Night after Christmas traditionally signifies the arrival of the three Kings, or three Wise Men, and in the western Christian tradition this is the Feast of the Epiphany – the moment when Jesus was revealed as the son of God. In the Orthodox tradition, the feast celebrates Jesus’s baptism as an adult in the River Jordan, and just as Christmas is celebrated 13 days after the Gregorian calendar, so too is Epiphany, which falls on 19th January.
It is quite a big deal in Russia, and the tradition of bathing to purify or cleanse your body at the start of a new year is extremely popular. For some reason, despite being the coldest part of the year in one of the coldest countries in the world, most adherents of the tradition insist on bathing in outdoor rivers or lakes, regardless of the temperature. Often a cross-shaped hole is made in frozen lakes and rivers, but it is more common for cities to arrange custom-made platforms so that getting in and out of the water is as simple as possible and there are plenty of people around to help if anything goes wrong.
I knew of the tradition but last year I had no idea where or when it happened, or where I needed to be to witness it. This year I was better prepared and was able to tap several sources for information. There would be bathing on the central Embankment in Volgograd, very close to my apartment. And it would continue throughout the day.
I had a Russian lesson in the morning and some lessons to prepare for in the afternoon, but a couple of hours free in the middle of the day, so I decided to take the long way home and see what was happening on the embankment. I should point out it was very cold – it was -15C when I left the house in the morning and if it had warmed it was only by a couple of degrees. In addition there was a strong northerly wind – straight from the Arctic! – full of sleet, tiny particles of glistening snow crystals. The closer I got to the river, the stronger and colder the wind felt.
I braved the freezing wind and headed for the riverside, soon spotting several small groups of people heading in the same direction. In this situation my mantra is follow the crowd, and indeed they took me where I wanted to be. The bathing area was sealed off with the only entrance manned by police checking everyone who came in with a metal detector, as seems standard at public gatherings.
Down the stairs and across the promenade was the little platform. There was a boat next to it, behind which the Volga flowed, the patches of ice on its surface marking its speed. One or two other interested spectators were watching and taking pictures so I joined them. There were two or three men dressed only in swimming trunks, and as we watched, in turn, they climbed down the steps into the freezing water, immersed themselves a couple of times, then hastily emerged and grabbed their towels and robes to dry off and warm up.
On the promenade there were a series of tents – I didn’t investigate too closely but I imagine one was male changing, one was female changing, and one was hot drinks for people coming out! I didn’t stay long because my fingers were in danger of snapping off, but in the 10 minutes or so I was there I didn’t see any lady bathers. There were a couple of brave young boys with their father, however. While I was there maybe a dozen people went in the water, and there were people leaving when I arrived and people arriving as I left, so I can imagine quite easily a few hundred people going in the water throughout the course of the day. And this was just one site in the city – each rayon had its own organised spot, and there were probably individuals and groups making their own holes in the ice in remote spots across the region. And this is happening across Russia – from the Caucasus to the middle of Siberia where temperatures can be -60C!
It is churlish of me complaining about the temperature while watching people immersing themselves in freezing water then stepping out into a cold wind that probably feels closer to -20C. But it really was cold. They have my utmost respect!