New York.- Vicki James Yiannias
The Vasilopita Observance on the Feast Day of Saint Basil, on January 1st, the beginning of the New Year and the Epiphany season, is one of the most beautiful and inspiring traditions and customs of the Greek Orthodox Church.
My mother told us that when she was a child, in Arcadia, in the Peloponnesus, her grandmother would have bathed, put on her best, clean clothes and made the sign of the cross before undertaking the serious task of baking the Vasilopita. The Vasilopita was a rich, sweet bread into which her grandmother would knead a coin before shaping a perfect round loaf decorated with designs made of dough and a walnut on top, sprinkled with sesame seeds then brushed with egg whites to render a glossy finish on the finished beauty that emerged hot from the clay oven in the courtyard. And lucky for the year was the person who experienced the excitement of coming across that coin buried in his or her portion of the Vasilopita when at the midnight of New Year’s Eve, her grandfather–first etching with a knife the sign of the cross over the Vasilopita–cut the first piece for Christ, the next for the house, then pieces for any visitors present and the members of the family by order of age from eldest to youngest. On New Years Day, friends and relatives visited to wish the Vasili and Vasiliki of the household Χρονια Πολλα! Oh, and let’s not forget the anticipation she said she felt while waiting for the καλαντα (Saint Basil’s carols) to be sung at their door the evening before. And on the day, an extra place was set at the table for Saint Basil.
In other parts of Greece she had heard, different types of pies made with phyllo and various stuffings, spiced pumpkin, for instance, were prepared as the Vasilopita; in the Aegean islands, even loukoumades, and in Asia Minor, perhaps even halva, but her sister-in-law in Athens wouldn’t dream of baking anything other than a sweet cake to contain the coin.
My mother’s own talent and her memories of her grandmother’s baking combined made her a highly skilled baker and confectioner for her own family, and one of her many masterpieces was the gorgeous and perfect Vasilopita she baked for the following 65 years. While he was alive, for the first 49 of those years, my father conveyed a feeling of mystery, joy, and a certain drama calling out our names as we respectfully gathered to receive our portions of the Vasilopita from him.
In New York, the festive cutting of the Vasilopita by societies, clubs, churches, organizations and other groups brings people together in a real sense of community. A couple of memorable events out of many that come immediately to mind are the year that Consul General of Greece to New York, Ambassador Aghi Balta and her husband, Ambassador Demetris Alexandrakis, hosted a warm gathering for the press at the Consulate. Ambassador Balta cut the Vasilopita and their young son Menelaos, who was supposed to be in bed, came down to join the group and charmed everyone, enriching the evening. Another is the 2012 Vasilopita-cutting hosted by the AGAPW organization at the Trump World Bar when Aphrodite Bouikidis of the Global Diaspora Initiative found the lucky coin in her slice of the cake.
Why is a coin buried in bread, cake, or other edibles, at all?
It is said that the Vasilopita tradition began in the 4th century when Basil, Bishop of Caesarea, in Cappadocia, later to be Saint Basil the Great, Ἅγιος Βασίλειος ὁ Μέγας (c. 330 – January 1, 379), who was known for his care of the poor and underprivileged (he established an orphanage for little children and founded the first Christian hospital in the world) had gold coins baked into sweetened bread as a way of distributing money to the poor without invoking embarrassment. Another legend is that Saint Basil called on the citizens of Caesarea to raise a ransom payment to stop an enemy siege of the city. They gave whatever they had in gold and jewelry, and the enemy chieftain was so embarrassed by this act of collective giving that he suspended the siege. Saint Basil was left with the task of returning the valuables without knowing to whom each belonged, so to solve the dilemma he had all of the valuables baked into loaves of bread and distributed the loaves to the city. The miracle: each citizen received exactly what he had given. Loaves of bread are not involved in the story of another 4th-century saint, Nikolaos, Bishop of Myra (also located in Asia Minor) later to be Saint Nicholas, Ἅγιος Νικόλαος, or Nikolaos the Wonderworker, Νικόλαος ὁ Θαυματουργός, (270 – December 6, 343), but this saint is also associated with secret gift-giving. The legend is that Saint Nicholas put coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him.
Over the centuries these two legends have blended. The Eastern “Santa” is identified with Saint Basil and the Western Santa Claus remains associated with Saint Nicholas. In Greek tradition, Saint Basil brings gifts to children on January 1. In other traditions Father Christmas arrives either on December 6, Saint Nicholas Day, or on Christmas Eve, December 24.
We’ll be seeing you at upcoming 2014 Vasilopita Observance gatherings. Χρονια Πολλα!