The 8th Day of Christmas-January 1st-St. Basil the Great

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My beloved brothers and sisters in Christ God,
CHRIST IS IN OUR MIDST! HE WAS, IS, AND EVER SHALL BE.

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THE GREEK ORTHODOX TRADITION OF THE "VA-SE-LO-PE-TA" (Saint Basil's Bread)

The Vasilopita (Saint Basil's Bread)

One of the most beautiful and inspiring traditions of our Greek Orthodox Church is the observance of Vasilopita which usually takes place on the Feast of Saint Basil the Great on January 1st every year. It is this annual observance, together with many other traditions of our Holy Church, which joins Our Orthodox Christian Faith with its history and heritage.

The word Vasilopita (Greek: Βασιλόπιτα) is a compound Greek word which means the sweet 'bread of Basil.'

Background History

This age old tradition commenced in the 4th century, when Saint Basil the Great, who was a bishop of Caesarea), wanted to distribute money to the poor in his Diocese. He commissioned some women to bake sweetened bread, in which he arranged to place gold coins. Thus the families in cutting the bread to nourish themselves, were pleasantly surprised to find the gold coin.

Saint Basil the Great was born in Caesarea of Cappadocia in 330 A.D. He was one of ten children of Saint Basil the Elder and Saint Emmelia. Several of his brothers and sisters are also honored among the Saints. He attended school in Caesarea, as well as Constantinople and Athens, where he became acquainted with Saint Gregory Nazianzen in 352 A.D.

He wrote a famous Monastic Rule which has proved the most lasting law. Eventually he decided to become a monk and found a monastery in Pontus, which he directed for five years. After founding several other monasteries, he was consecrated as Bishop of Caesarea in 370 A.D.

He served that post until his death in 379 A.D., while he continued to be a man of vast learning and constant activity, genuine eloquence and immense charity. This earned him the title "Great" during his life. His glorified a Saint by the Church following his death.

Another tradition of Vasilopita

In another popular tradition, Vasilopita is associated with a story associated with Saint Basil of Caesarea. According to this story, Saint Basil called on the Roman 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 jewelry. When the ransom was raised, the enemy was so embarrassed by the act of collective giving that he had called off the siege without collecting payment. Saint 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 jewelry into loaves of bread and distributed the loaves to the city, and by a miracle each citizen received their exact share.

The story of the coin in the Vasilopita originates from the time of the Prefect of Cappadocia; a true tyrant, asked for all the treasures of the city of Caesarea to be delivered to him, otherwise he would besiege the city to conquer and loot it.

Saint Basil, as Bishop, prayed to God all night to save the people and the city. The next morning the Prefect's army surrounded the city of Caesarea. The Prefect entered the city with his guard and asked to see the Bishop. The angry Prefect demanded all the gold of the city, as well as any other treasures that they kept.

The Bishop replied that the people of his city had nothing but hunger and poverty, so they had nothing to give to the Prefect. Upon hearing those words, the tyrant was infuriated and threatened to oust the Bishop from his homeland or even to kill him.

The Christians of Caesarea loved their Bishop as wanted to help him. So they gathered all the gold they had in their possession, put in inside a chest and offered it to Saint Basil so that he would give to the ruthless Prefect.

The tyrant was impatient though, and upon Saint Basil's first reply, he ordered his army to attack the poor people of the city.

Saint Basil the Great, in his turn, offered the chest of gold to the Prefect in order to save the city. But when the tyrant opened the chest and put his greedy hands on the gold, a miracle happened:

All the people who had gathered around the Prefect and the chest, saw a brilliant glow and from inside the chest a rider followed by an army came out of the chest and wiped out the army of the Prefect. The glowing horseman was Philopater Mercurius (Saint Marcurius), and his army was an army of Angels.

Thus the city of Caesarea was saved. But then, the Bishop had to share the gold that was given to him with all the city residents. He wanted the sharing of the gold to be fair, a rather difficult task. So Saint Basil the Great prayed to God for advice and He instructed him what to do:

The Bishop called all Deacons and his assistants and told them to knead bread and put pieces of gold in each one. When they were ready, Saint Basil the Great distributed the bread to all inhabitants of the city of Caesarea. The people were very surprised when every family that cut the bread found a piece of gold (coin) inside. It was a special piece of bread, one that brought the Christians joy and blessings together.

Since, then, the Vasilopita has become a Christian tradition, where on the first day of the New Year, Saint Basil's Day, the faithful cut the bread hoping to find the coin that is said to bring them blessings throughout the New Year.

The Annual Home Observance

According to tradition, special sweet bread (in some areas of Greece, it takes the form of a cake) is prepared both in the Orthodox homes and in the Church community which is called Vasilopita. Sweets are added to the bread which symbolizes the Sweetness and joy of life everlasting (eternal). It also symbolizes the hope that the New Year will be filled with the sweetness of life, liberty, health, and happiness 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 (Bread) which contains the coin is considered blessed.

Many Orthodox Christians enjoy the Vasilopita at home with their loved ones during the New Year celebration. The head of the family (father) cuts the pieces of bread for all members of the family. Since Saint Basil loved the poor people, a special piece is cut for the unfortunate of the world, which symbolizes our concern and love for the poverty-stricken people of all nations.

Saint Basil the Great was the first person in human history to establish an orphanage for little children. He also found the first Christian hospital in the world. His fame as a Holy Man spread like wildfire throughout the Byzantine world. He was considered one of the most wise and compassionate clergyman in the entire history of the Church.  

Postscript

The Vasilopita is a joyous observance, and it is a tradition which should not be neglected by Greek Orthodox Christians in the Western world. It should be retained annually in the home and in the parish. It is a wonderful way to begin each New Year which God has given to the world.  If you have holding the observance in your home, congratulations! Please continue to do so. If you have not, hopefully this information has explained to you how to do it.

Saint Basil Academy

Saint Basil Academy is the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese home for children in need. The academy is on the Eastern Bank of the Hudson River directly opposite the United States West Point Military Academy, and within an hour's drive from New York City (Garrison, N.Y.).

Serving as a philanthropic center of the Church, the purpose of the Academy is to provide a loving Christian environment, where resident children are nurtured into adulthood.

Although children are brought to the Academy for various reasons, the common thread of all the resident children is the inability of a parent or guardian to sufficiently care for them...Focusing on the total child, each child's spiritual, emotional and material needs are addressed and provided for in chapel, recreational, and family type settings.

SUNDAY, JANUARY 13TH

Our parish Vasilopita cutting will take place in church following the Divine Liturgy. After the Vasilopita blessing all the heads of the Parish Ministries will be invited to receive a slice. A basket will be on the table for everyone to place their gift. All the parishioners attending the divine service will be offered a slice and are encouraged to offer their donation. All funds collected will be sent to Saint Basil's Academy.

My sincere thank you to Mrs. Maria Angelos for baking the Vasilopita bread not only for the parish but also for the children of our Church School. Mrs. Angelos has been doing this for decades. May God bless her and her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Chronia Polla!

With sincere agape,

Father George