A shivering crowd of around 100 men defied Covid-19 restrictions Wednesday to jump into Bulgaria's Tundzha river -- an icy swim marking the Epiphany, which is supposed to bring good health.
Rumen Stoyanov, mayor of the riverside town of Kalofer in central Bulgaria, declined to join in the ritual himself this year. But he did not stop residents from diving in, despite a ban on large group gatherings.
"Nobody is in a position to stop this celebration. It's a sign of how defiant Kalofer residents are," he said.
Participants would be asked to chip in to help pay an expected fine of 1,000 lev ($315, 500 euros), he added.
Crosses are thrown into lakes and rivers by priests across Bulgaria and Romania to mark the Epiphany, which in the eastern Orthodox Church is celebrated as the baptism of Christ.
The first person to retrieve the cross is supposedly blessed with good health.
In Kalofer, men clad in embroidered shirts held out for longer than usual as they performed their traditional dance in the freezing water, a show of tenacity in a time of particular health challenges.
They did not appear to have taken any precautions against Covid, despite Bulgaria having one of the highest mortality rates from coronavirus in the European Union.
Some even risked a kiss of the cross -- something the Church has discouraged to avoid spreading the virus.
"Generations of our men have submerged themselves in the river for their health. It's a way of showing that we are strong, and that we will fight any challenges," said Iliana Mincheva, a 51-year-old spectator.
She was a little disappointed that the river was free of ice this winter.
- Romania, Greece, also follow tradition -
In Sofia, men took part in a similarly bracing dive -- but in swimming trunks.
Some towns cancelled the ceremony this year, while others adapted the tradition to reduce the risk of infections.
In Romania, churches hoped to avoid the usual queues for holy water by preparing tens of thousands of bottles in advance.
Christians also flocked to churches in Greece to celebrate the Epiphany, after the Church rejected government restrictions.
Ministers had urged places of worship to stay shut, but the Church refused and instead agreed only to curtail some of its rituals.
Worshippers seen by AFP photographers in Greece broadly respected social distance measures and wore masks. But many queued to receive communion, a practice experts have warned could be a crucial way of spreading the virus.