ASTANA – Thousands of Astana residents flocked to the Yessil River in temperatures below freezing on Jan. 19 to commemorate the Russian Orthodox Church’s Epiphany Day by dipping into the freezing water.
Epiphany Day celebrates the christening of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River by John the Baptist and the manifestation of the Christian god in the figure of Jesus Christ; the dip is to wash away old transgression and strengthen spirit and body.
Central Park, on the bank of the river, rang with laughter as Astana’s hardiest dove in and hurried out of the icy waters. Though the holiday is a Christian religious celebration, it attracts people of different faiths and nationalities as a test of endurance.
“We came here today to wash off our transgressions. For a newcomer this might seem strange, but afterwards it feels great,” said 57-year-old Astana resident Alexander Kovalchuk. “This is very symbolic, to cleanse your body. When you dive, your body is shocked and you get a lot of adrenaline in your heart; it is like being reborn … the colder the weather gets, the warmer it is when you get out from the water!”
Kovalchuk also recounted some beliefs about the Epiphany day dip, including that swimming on any other day could lead to serious illness, but not on Jan. 19, and that the body will turn blue after being submerged in water on any other day, but emerges red and healthy when celebrating the Epiphany. “This tradition builds up the immune system for the whole year! Skeptics just have to try it once,” he said.
The Epiphany dip is so popular that at some points participants were waiting up to five minutes in lines to reach the diving holes—long enough to get seriously cold, though after emerging from the water they looked immune to the air temperature.
“The thought that the water is freezing is scarier than it actually is. Just diving quickly in and climbing out, I feel superhuman!” another participant said.
An ambulance and members of the Ministry of Emergency Situations were on hand in case of accidents.