Traditional Greek culture, including dancing, is on display during the Christian holiday Epiphany in Tarpon Springs, Fla. (Josh Noel/Chicago Tribune)

TARPON SPRINGS, Fla. — The Greeks started filing into church about 8 a.m., but I'm neither Greek nor churchgoing, so I spent the morning walking.

I started where everyone would be in a few hours: the bayou just off the downtown, where more than 70 boys ages 16 to 18 would leap into the shallow, frigid water in pursuit of a cross tossed by a Greek Orthodox elder. Whoever retrieved the cross would win good luck for himself and his family for a year. He would be a town hero, a name on everyone's lips.

Locals already were setting up folding chairs and laying down blankets around the bayou's edge. Four TV trucks were in position for their live shots. The skies were gray and the air cool. Sheets of rain had fallen overnight.

It was Jan. 6, the Christian holiday of Epiphany (or Three Kings Day, if you prefer), and the annual religious and cultural highlight in this town of 23,000. Tarpon Springs, which has one of the highest percentages of Greeks in the country, has sent its boys into the water chasing crosses on this day for more than 100 years. The merging of cross and water commemorates Jesus' baptism.

I left the gathering crowd behind and wandered to St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, where cops waited outside to lead the four-block procession to the bayou. Across the street, in Fournos Bakery, the woman behind the counter told me everything in the glass case was baked that morning. I got a profoundly dense, chocolate-covered baklava and spinach pie with a deliciously creamy center. She asked where I was from. I said up North.

"Are you Greek?" she asked.

"No," I said. "Just checking out Epiphany."

Greeks started moving here as sponge divers in the late 1800s, and today they largely fuel the town, with Greek restaurant after Greek restaurant and the sponge docks, a collection of small tourist-ready shops. Tarpon Springs hasn't had much of a face-lift in recent decades, but the town is better off for it. Somehow Greek heritage seems more authentic when slightly weathered.

Though sponge diving brought Greeks here, its primary industry today is tourism — that is, being full of Greeks, and it is a tourist destination for that reason alone. But if there is one day to visit Tarpon Springs, it is Epiphany. On Jan. 6, the experience is more than being a tourist; you join them for a celebration of community, history and culture.

Back at the bayou, bodies were filling in — about 12,000, according to local estimates. The proselytizers were showing up with large signs about the afterlife, and the television reporters started going to work.

I squeezed into a spot beside two local women who never miss the cross chase. No one in town does, they said, never mind that it lasts no more than 30 seconds.

"You Greek?" one of the women asked.

"Nope," I said.

A helicopter started buzzing in place overhead. Epiphany was getting serious.

Just before 1 p.m., the procession showed up — the church hierarchy, including a Greek Orthodox honcho who had flown in from New York, and the stars of the day: the teenage boys, who were shivering in bathing suits and matching white T-shirts. Some looked ready for a fight. Bowed heads on others said they clearly did not want to be there.

The religious leaders, decked in long, flowing garb, took their places at the edge of the water and began to pray. The crowd was largely respectful but murmured lightly, ready for some splashing. The leader blessed the gathering, asked the Lord for mercy and then, in an ancient, accented voice, said, "Young divers, go." The boys hurled themselves into the water and sped to a series of boats arranged as a half-moon. They took their places in the boats and prepared to launch themselves when the cross was thrown. The family behind me started guessing who would win.

One said the kid in the blue swim trunks. One picked the kid in black. Another said the one in yellow. It seemed absurd. How could they pick correctly from so many boys?

After another few minutes of prayers, the cross went skyward. Cheers erupted, and the boys tore back into the water, all frenzied arms and legs, for the chance at victory and becoming a small-town celebrity. It didn't take more than 15 seconds for a kid whose family is well-known for — go figure — running a Greek restaurant to emerge from the pack. His competitors cheered him as loudly as anyone.

And behold — it was the kid in yellow. How did that woman get it right?