On New Year’s Day families cut the vasilopita to bless the house and bring good luck for the New Year. This is usually done at the midnight of New Year’s Eve. A coin is hidden in the bread by slipping it into the dough before baking. At midnight the sign of the cross is etched with a knife across the cake. A piece of cake is sliced for each member of the family and any visitors present at the time, by order of age from eldest to youngest. Slices are also cut for various symbolic people or groups, depending on local and family tradition. They may include the Lord, St. Basil and other saints, the poor, the household, or the Kallikantzaroi. In older times, the coin often was a valuable one, such as a gold sovereign. Nowadays there is often a prearranged gift, money, or otherwise, to be given to the coin recipient.
Many private or public institutions, such as societies, clubs, workplaces, companies, etc., cut their vasilopita at a convenient time between New Year’s Day and the beginning of the Great Lent, in celebrations that range from impromptu potluck gatherings to formal receptions or balls.
The tradition of vasilopita is associated with a legend of Saint Basil. According to the legend St. Basil called on the citizens of Caesarea to raise a ransom payment to stop the siege of the city. Each member of the city gave whatever they had in gold and jewelery. When the ransom was raised, the enemy was so embarrassed by the act of collective giving that he called off the siege without collecting payment. St. Basil was then tasked with returning the unpaid ransom, but had no way to know which items belonged to which family. So he baked all of the jewelery into loaves of bread and distributed the loaves to the city, and by a miracle each citizen received their exact share, the legend goes. In some tellings the sieging chieftain is replaced with an evil emperor levying a tax, or simply with St. Basil attempting to give charity to the poor without embarrassing them.