MOSCOW, January 17 (RIA Novosti) – Long shirts, no vodka and dry armpits – these are just a few of the recommendations Russian doctors, swimmers and priests are giving to those who plan on dipping into ice-cold water to mark the Russian Orthodox Christian holiday of Epiphany on January 19.
The nerve-testing tradition symbolizes Jesus Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River and traditionally lures the hardiest churchgoers, and not only, to rivers and lakes across Russia. Through holes cut in the ice, celebrators plunge into the water – typically three times, in honor of the Holy Trinity – around midnight, often after an attending priest says a prayer.
Ritual Not Mandatory
The ritual of submergence, believed to be at least five centuries old, would seem to be at the center of the celebration, since the act is meant to symbolize a cleansing of sins from the previous year and a rebirth in preparation for the upcoming one.
But Russian Orthodox clerics say the icy bath isn’t necessary.
“If you don’t jump into the hole, you don’t lose anything, to be frank,” says Archpriest Maxim Kozlov, rector of the St. Serafim of Sarov Cathedral in Moscow, adding that the ritual is meant only for the healthy and well prepared.
Kozlov also urged against exploiting the opportunity to show off one’s beach body, saying the most appropriate clothing to evoke the Jordan River would be a long shirt.
“So, please, it’s not necessary to turn this into a demonstration of one’s charms or, on the contrary, one's age-related flaws,” he said.
Alexander Chuchalin, co-chair of the Society of Orthodox Doctors and a top physician at Russia’s Health Ministry, agreed, adding that certain people should avoid such shocks to the system altogether.
“Some people shouldn’t do this at all,” he said, listing those with heart or respiratory ailments, obesity, high blood pressure and arrhythmia, as well as children and the elderly.
He also pointed to a range of serious gender-specific problems that could crop up for those who decide to take the icy plunge.
“Men who suffer from prostatitis or benign prostatic hyperplasia [an enlarged prostate], and women with inflammatory diseases in the genital area cannot bathe” in such cold water, he said, explaining that the freezing temperatures could worsen such conditions.
Instead, Chuchalin suggested to those who can’t partake in the outdoor celebration to try it at home – in the shower.
“As a doctor, I’ve seen many problems during my long career that have stemmed from ill-advised decisions,” he said.
Taking the Plunge
If one does decide, however, to partake in the ritual in its traditional form, Chuchalin mentioned some general precautions.
“To stay healthy, it is necessary to dress in wool clothes – never in anything synthetic,” he said, adding that a cup of hot tea and honey would do wonders, while alcohol – Russia’s traditional warm-up beverage – should be avoided.
Vladimir Grebenkin, president of the International Marathon Winter Swimming Association, gave another tip: Swimmers should undress from the bottom up, leaving the socks on until just moments before the dip.
When all is said and done, he added, the whole process should take a fraction of the time of an average lunch break.
“Undressing, dressing and bathing should take no more than five to seven minutes,” he said, adding that the time actually spent in freezing-cold water should not exceed 30 seconds.
“For first-timers, I categorically don’t recommend lying around in the snow taking photos,” Grebenkin said.
As a final warning, he points to what he calls the two most important rules: Warm up your hands and feet if they’ve gotten cold, and never take the plunge with sweaty armpits.
"Wipe them dry, stand around for a minute, then get into the water," Grebenkin says.