Saturday January 19th started off innocently enough…
“Do you know if the water is shut off in this entire region?” I asked the taxi driver after sitting down.
“Ah, you don’t have to worry about that,” he answered. Today you can go down to the river and get holy water, and it will be clean and healthy.”
“Um, we don’t have any water at home. So you don’t know if the water is shut off here? You haven’t heard anything?” I responded, a bit frustrated that my use of the Russian language apparently confuses people. “I guess it would be better to just ask my neighbor.”
“It is ok, because if you go get water today, it is holy. The priest blessed it. You can even let it sit for a year – or even two – and it won’t spoil. Today is Epiphany Freeze.”
My mind races… I know he is talking about a holiday, but what does the freezing have to do with it? I go along, chatting a little more, and discover he means Epiphany – it just has a funny name in Russian. He tells me about how we need to go swimming in the lake today if we can (“You won’t get sick, because the water is warmer today. It is Epiphany.”), and about how everyone is getting holy water from the river.
On the Julian calendar, Epiphany falls on January 19th, rather than January 6th (or rather, January 6th on the Julian Calendar is 13 days later than on the Gregorian one…). The Orthodox celebrate Epiphany differently from Westerners, including marking a different event entirely – Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan. The water is considered holy because of the Orthodox practice of a priest blessing water (which, in Russia, usually happens by going to a lake or river, rather than going to, for example, the baptismal font inside the church).
In the end, three things stood out to me about Epiphany.
1.) The church bells were playing. Whereas I hear mosques all the time, this is the first time I have heard (or recall hearing, at least) church bells in Kyrgyzstan.
2.) There were lots of people digging holes in the 18” of ice covering the little rivers through our town, their buckets waiting nearby to collect some of the holy water.
3.) Many of the people observing Epiphany were Kyrgyz – i.e. people who aren’t Russian Orthodox, aren’t Christian, and figure it doesn’t hurt to collect some of the blessings of other faiths nonetheless, not seeing any kind of conflict with their own faith(s).