What could drag you away from your warm stove to stand outdoors in your swimming suit in sub-zero weather, waiting your turn to plunge below the ice?

In The Russian Orthodox church calendar, January 20 marks the Baptism of Our Lord. On this day, many of the faithful and not-so-faithful go to a designated place in a river or lake, where a hole has been cut in the ice, and place their entire bodies into the freezing water. People do this for various reasons. For some it’s simply part of a healthy lifestyle. Others do it because it’s a traditional Russian practice. Some do it as a reminder of their baptism. Not a few of the faithful view this as a real means of washing away their sins committed during the past year.

The standard procedure is to go into the water, make the sign of the cross, and immerse oneself three times, in a way reminiscent of Orthodox baptisms. Whatever the motivation, no one dallies in the water, but climbs out as quickly as possible.

Is it dangerous? It can be. People sometimes make themselves sick, even fatally so. This year, in a town near here, a man died while taking his dip. Most healthy people, however, suffer no ill effects. Some are convinced that if you’re a true believer, you won’t get sick.

Baptism Day has other curious features as well. On this day the Patriarch blesses the water. People flock into Orthodox churches to get their yearly quota of this “holy water,” which they use for all kinds of purposes, from sprinkling the sick to making their houseplants grow. Even some unbaptized people with no real churchly connection will darken the doors of the church to pick up their supply.

This year the Orthodox Church declared that on Baptism Day the tap water was also blessed, so that for this one day water flowing from the faucets was holy.

In all this one has to look rather hard to find Christ and the saving significance for us of His baptism. Nevertheless, every year it makes for lots of lively news coverage and commentary.