"Do it fast and don't scream," Nikolai Pastushenko, 34, thinks as he wades into the icy cold water of the river running through the center of the Ukrainian city of Dnipro. He does the sign of the cross across his bare chest and then he dunks. Once. Twice. Three times. His mind goes blank.

Pastushenko is one of about three dozen people who have come down to this spot along the Dnipro River to take the plunge, a tradition across Ukraine — and Russia — on Jan. 19. The Christian holiday of Epiphany celebrates the baptism of Jesus Christ, though this annual ice swim's religious ties are loose. The Orthodox Church of Ukraine has been vocal in its objections to it, including in a Facebook post this week that said, "there is no religious reason for the immersion in winter water and never has been."

But it's become a tradition nonetheless and persists despite the war.

"Of course, it doesn't feel like a holiday this year — you don't have a festive mood," says Pastushenko, who is meeting a number of his friends here to take the plunge together. "It's just a reason to get together and to get more united." Feeling a sense of lightness, if just for a moment, is especially important now, he says, given the recent events in Dnipro. "We just need to get distracted a little bit from what is happening. It's not to have fun, but to think about something else, to turn your attention into something else."

This year, the crowds are much smaller. Mass gatherings were banned in several cities, including Kharkiv, though many smaller gatherings still took place across the country.

In Dnipro, near a marina with a small rocky beach, there's no queue, so you don't have to wait in line. Yulia, 43, confidently wades in while her friend snaps photos. "It feels great," she says when she emerges. She did not share her last name for privacy reasons. When she was younger, she watched her parents do it, and she's been coming herself for the last seven years. She felt it was important to come this year, too. "You want to preserve what was before, especially this year," she says. "It gives you this feeling of normalcy — that everything is okay. It's something that we are all missing now."

In years when the river is totally frozen, people jump in a hole cut into the shape of a cross. But a warm winter has left the Dnipro river mostly thawed, although the chunks of ice that drift to shore serve as a reminder that even if the water isn't frozen solid, it's still quite cold.

Groups of friends huddle in their bathing suits and towels, making game plans and deciding who will go first. A man named Roman jogs in place, then does some pushups, before announcing it's time for him to go in.

Many of the people here have been doing this for years and are far less interested in the washing away of their sins and more into the idea of a fresh start, a clean mind and a jump start as they begin the new year.

"It gives you a little bit of clarity," explains Stanislav Bazhenov, 22, who is in the Ukrainian military and on break for the next week before heading back to the fighting in Soledar. "You dip into the water and you get this good feeling — like freedom, you know?" He confirms that submerging feels like small daggers all over your body — but in a relaxing way. "It's hard to describe," he says. "You just have to do it yourself." [Copyright 2023 NPR]