KALOFER, Bulgaria (AFP) - Thousands of men and women across Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece plunged into icy waters Tuesday as part of an extreme Christian Orthodox celebration for the feast of Epiphany.
From Thessaloniki in northern Greece to Istanbul and the small Bulgarian town of Kalofer, thick-skinned swimmers braved winter temperatures to retrieve wooden crucifixes thrown into the water by Orthodox priests as part of an annual ritual held on Jan 6.
"Since the first time I made the dive at 18 years old I have always had good luck and good work," said one swimmer in Istanbul who gave his name as Baba.
The Bulgarian withstood the 10-degree celsius waters of the Bosphorus to retrieve the cross.
"I hope that my dive will bring luck and health to my family," he added.
In Prague, participants - several wearing paper crowns - did not chase after a cross but still took an icy dip in the Vltava river for the traditional swim on Epiphany, also known as Three Kings day.
In Kalofer, in central Bulgaria, about 250 men broke the ice and waded into the slushy waters of the Tundzha river, while singing and performing a traditional chain dance dressed in white embroidered shirts and old-fashioned wool trousers and accompanied by a small folk orchestra.
The ritual is over 100 years old and unique in Bulgaria, said mayor Rumen Stoyanov, who led the dance himself.
Local tradition has it that only men can take part in the icy plunge, known as "saving the cross", but there is no age restriction, he said.
The youngest participant to brave the sub-zero temperatures was five-year-old Stilian accompanied by his father.
According to local belief, none of the dancers will get ill after taking the icy dip and he and his relatives will have a healthy year.
Participants prepare beforehand with a night of songs, food as well as homemade wine and brandy.
Among Orthodox Christians, the feast of Epiphany celebrates the day the spirit of God descended upon believers in the shape of a dove during Jesus Christ's baptism in the river Jordan. In western churches, focus is on the visit to Christ of the three kings, or Magi.
The Kalofer dancers released several white pigeons under the cheers of onlookers, many of whom then jumped into the river, as the water on this day is believed to bring health and purification.