On January 1st we observe a tradition, both in our churches and in our homes, which has been handed down from the 4th century. It is the baking and cutting of the sweet bread (or cake) known as the Vasilopita (Βασιλόπιτα), aptly named after St Basil the Great.
St Basil came from a Christian family, and is considered one of the most wise and compassionate clergymen in the entire history of the Church! He was made Bishop of Cappadocia in Caesarea, and was the first to establish orphanages, hospitals and age-care homes.
We are told that during a time of terrible famine, the emperor put an excessive tax on the people of Caesarea. To avoid prison, the people had to hand over whatever they had: coins and jewellery. St Basil, on learning of this injustice, came to his people’s defence. With fervent prayer and by God’s grace, the emperor repented of his deed and instructed the tax collectors to hand over all the wealth to St Basil.
Faced with the dilemma of not knowing who contributed what, St Basil returned each person their valuables by having them baked into a huge ‘pita’. After the Divine Liturgy, he blessed the pita, and each person’s slice miraculously contained the money or jewels they had contributed!
In remembrance of this miracle, Orthodox Christians bake the Vasilopita on St Basil’s feast day, January 1st, the date on which he reposed.
A coin is baked into the sweet Vasilopita and the person who is lucky to find it is considered to be blessed for the whole year. Traditionally the Vasilopita is cut by the most senior member of the family. It is good to do the sign of the cross three times over the Vasilopita, saying: “in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”.
The first portion cut is for our Lord, the second for Panagia, the third for St Basil, the fourth for the poor and then members of the family starting from the eldest to the youngest. Pieces can be cut for the Church, the household, and visitors.
This custom reminds us of St Basil’s great charity and love, and that we too should always be mindful of our suffering brothers and sisters. Only then will the coming new year be truly blessed from God.
Source: December 2015 – January 2016 Lychnos Edition