MOSCOW - Thousands of Russian Orthodox Church followers plunged into icy rivers and ponds across the country to mark Epiphany on Saturday, cleansing themselves with water deemed holy for the day.
Elderly people, children and families took part in Epiphany ceremonies, some diving in all the way and others just splashing their faces. All waters are consider holy for the holiday.
"On this holy and solemn day, all of nature is consecrated," Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II said in a sermon at Moscow's Epiphany Cathedral, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.
Russians also lined up at churches nationwide to collect consecrated water. Water that is blessed by a cleric on Epiphany is considered holy and pure until the next year's celebration, and is believed to have special powers of protection and healing.
The Russian Orthodox Church follows the old Julian calendar, according to which Christmas falls on Jan. 7 and Epiphany - which commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan and his visit from the Magi - on Jan. 19. The holidays lapsed into disuse under the atheist Soviet authorities but have revived since the 1991 Soviet collapse.