STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Yesterday was an important holiday in the Russian Orthodox Church. It was the epiphany, which celebrates the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan. Russian believers mark this event by re-enacting the baptism in ponds and rivers. Now you may note that Russia is a little bit north of the Jordan. As NPR's Corey Flintoff discovered, that means plunging into freezing water through holes cut in the ice.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Big cities like Moscow often set up elaborate stations where people can take the plunge, but this is Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia. The church sits on a busy road in an industrial zone.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Russian).
FLINTOFF: It's a former restaurant below concrete building that doesn't look much different from the auto shops and tire dealers that line the road. It does have a small gold onion dome that perches on the roof like a party hat.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CHURCH CONGREGATION: (Singing in Russian).
FLINTOFF: Inside, though, it's already packed with people, bowing and crossing themselves before the icons. In contrast to many churches in Russia, there are lots of young adults here together with their kids. People move about, lighting candles or placing 5-liter plastic water jugs near the altar where the water will be blessed. The service starts at 9 p.m. and lasts nearly four hours. Around midnight, people who plan to take the plunge start to gather on the icy slope above the pond. It's a few degrees above freezing, so the ground is a slurry of ice and mud. Most people wear their swimsuits under their clothes, swinging their towels and underwear in plastic bags. Twenty-nine-year-old Artur Guzanov says this is his fifth year taking the plunge and his second time at this church.
ARTUR GUZANOV: (Speaking Russian).
FLINTOFF: "Epiphany is purification," he says. "My soul is cleansed, and I'm charged with a good mood for the whole year ahead." The place where people will take the plunge is a small wooden platform over the ice with a hole cut in the shape of a cross that opens into the freezing waters below. At 1 o'clock in the morning, the service ends with a peal of bells, well, not bells exactly but lengths of steel tubing hanging from a frame.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS)
FLINTOFF: The priest and his deacons make their way down the slope, carrying the candles in gilded banners from the church.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Russian).
FLINTOFF: The priest, Father Vladimir, is the first to take the plunge.
(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)
FLINTOFF: He ducks under the icy waters three times, crossing himself each time he rises. A couple hundred parishioners follow, giving themselves to the power of the ritual and the shock of the water. How does it feel, I asked one man. Good, he said, absolutely good. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Rostov-on-Don, Russia.
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