SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) - Thousands of young men plunged into icy rivers and lakes across Bulgaria on Monday to retrieve crucifixes cast by priests in an old ritual marking the feast of Epiphany.

By tradition, a crucifix is cast into a lake or river and it's believed that the person who retrieves it will be healthy and freed from evil spirits throughout the year.

The celebration of Epiphany, or the Apparition of Christ, as Bulgarians call it, began in Sofia with a water-blessing ceremony.

The head of Bulgaria's Orthodox Church, Patriarch Neofit, said a prayer for the prosperity of the people and blessed the colors of representative army units - a tradition abandoned in 1946 and re-established in 1992.

In the central city of Kalofer, some 300 men, most of them in traditional dress, waded into the chest-deep waters of the Tundzha River waving national flags.

Led by the town's mayor and encouraged by a folk orchestra, they danced and stomped the rocky riverbed. Many had brought homemade plum brandy and red wine to help them brave the freezing cold.

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