One of the most beautiful and inspiring traditions and customs of the Greek Orthodox Church is the observance of Vasilopita. It is this annual family observance, together with many other traditions of our Church, which joins our Orthodox Faith and heritage with the history of the Christian religion itself.
The word Vasilopita is a compound Greek word which means the sweet ‘bread of Basil.’
This age old tradition commenced in the fourth century, when St. Basil the Great, who was a bishop, wanted to distribute money to the poor in his diocese. There are various traditions about the reasons behind the distribution, but the stories all agree in the matter of how he did it. St. Basil commissioned some women to bake sweetened bread, in which he arranged to place gold coins. Thus the families cutting the bread to nourish themselves, were pleasantly surprised to find the coins.
The Annual Home Observance
This event, which happened in Cappadocia of Caesarea in the last half of the fourth century, is very much alive in our Orthodox homes each year on January 1st. According to tradition, special sweet bread or cake is prepared both in the Orthodox homes and in the Church community which is called Vasilopita. Sweets are added to the bread, which symbolize the sweetness and joy of life everlasting. It also symbolises the hope that the New Year will be filled with the sweetness of God’s blessings for all who participate in the Vasilopita Observance. When the Vasilopita is prepared, a coin is usually added to the ingredients. When the bread is cut and the observance begins, the individual who receives that portion of the pita which contains the coin is considered blessed.
This tradition adds joy to the celebration at the beginning of the New Year, which everyone hopes will bring joy to all. Many Orthodox Christians enjoy the Vasilopita at home with their loved ones during the New Year celebration. The head of the family cuts the pieces of pita for all members of the family.
Since St. Basil loved the poor people, a special piece is also cut for the unfortunate of the world, which symbolizes our concern for poverty-stricken people of all nations.
Cutting the Vasilopita
The head of the household will bless the Vasilopita with the cutting knife crosswise in the Name of the Trinity. He then will cut a piece as an offering to Jesus Christ, Who is our life. Then he will proceed to cut pieces for the Ever-Virgin Mary, for St. Basil, himself, and the other members of his family (in the parish, we also cut a piece for our local hierarch) and all those present until the entire pita is distributed.
In some parts of the world, Greece for example, gifts are also exchanged on St. Basil’s Day at the time of the Vasilopita cutting, in honor of St. Basil’s example of unselfish giving which has given him fame as “the father of philanthropy.” He is said to have developed for the needy, an entire city, named Basiliadas, that included an orphanage and the world’s first modern hospital.
The Vasilopita is a joyous observance, and it is a custom that should not be neglected by Orthodox Christians in the Western world. It is a wonderful way to begin each New Year, which God has given to the world.