Epiphany bathers line up at an ice hole in Nerli in 2008.

Epiphany bathers line up at an ice hole in Nerli in 2008. (Photo: Aleksey Nikolskyi/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Marking a tradition so cool it’s cold, scores of Russian Orthodox Christians dove headlong into icy water last night to celebrate the Epiphany, The Moscow Times reports.

The Epiphany marks the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, and is celebrated on January 19th, one of the least obvious times of year for swimming. For the ritual, known as “The Great Sanctification of the Water,” a priest blesses a body of water, and devotees immerse themselves in it.

Until fairly recently, this “immersion” usually meant a church-style sprinkling, but starting in the 1990s, Russians began embracing the Polar Bear Plunge aspect. Now thousands spend the 19th cutting cross-shaped holes in icy rivers, cannonballing into local pools, or charging into the Black Sea.

Temperatures last night fell well below freezing, but the devoted still dunked themselves three times in a row, as tradition dictates. The truly hardcore started at midnight, but celebrations continued throughout the day, as more light-oriented swimmers took the plunge and everyone warmed up.

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