St. Basil’s Day
Orthodox Christians recognize January 1 as St. Basil’s Day. St. Basil was born in central Turkey and became famous for his intellectual brilliance, his care of the poor, and the rules he wrote to govern monastic life. Greeks celebrate St. Basil’s Day with GIFT giving, carol singing, a special kind of bread, and a number of customs designed to attract good luck for the coming year.
New Year’s Eve
The eve of St. Basil’s Day coincides with New Year’s Eve. On this long, dark night, relatives and friends gather together to wait for the beginning of the new year. Many people play cards or other GAMES of chance on this evening, as old superstitions link New Year’s Eve and Day with fortune-telling. When the clock strikes midnight people wish each other “Chrónia pollá ” (many years) or “Kalí chroniá ” (good year).
The first person to enter the home after midnight determines the household’s luck in the coming year (see also FIRSTFOOTING). A strong, healthy person will bring good luck to the house. An icon (a religious image used in prayer and worship) can also bring good luck to a home if it is the first thing to come in from the outside. The person bearing the icon must carry it with outstretched arms, so it enters the house before he or she does. Greek families may observe other superstitions on New Year’s Eve, such as opening windows at midnight to release any evil spirits hanging about the house.
Another old New Year’s Eve tradition encourages children and adults to go from house to house, singing carols called kalanda (see also Christmas Carols). One such Greek carol, called “Kalanda Pro-tochronias” honors the start of the new year and the arrival of St. Basil from Caesarea in what is now Turkey. Traditionally these carolers carried with them a paper star, a ship, an orange, an apple, and a green branch from the dogwood tree (see also CHRISTMAS SYMBOLS). The singers would bestow a blessing on the families they visited by brushing them on the back with the branch. People also went caroling on New Year’s Day, but sometimes added other symbolic acts thought to ensure the household’s luck, such as tossing wheat into their backyard or prodding their fire.
ST. BASIL’S DAY, NEW YEAR’S DAY
On New Year’s Day families gather together to share a loaf of vasiló-pita, “St Basil’s bread.” (Some families eat the vasilópita after midnight on New Year’s Eve.) Bakers insert a coin into this sweet, braided bread (or cake, in some regions of GREECE). Whoever gets the coin in their slice of bread will have good luck in the coming year. The bread is often distributed in a ceremonial way. The head of the household makes the sign of the cross over the bread and cuts the first slice, which is “for Christ.” The second and third pieces are offered to St. Basil and the Virgin MARY. The next piece goes to the head of the household, and the remaining slices go to the rest of the household, with the eldest receiving theirs first and the youngest last. Some families also designate slices “for the house” and “for the poor.” In rural areas farm animals, too, may be included in this custom.
An old Greek legend explains the origins of this custom. It claims that when St. Basil was acting as bishop of Caesarea, he was asked to return a sack of valuable items that had been collected from the people of the city (some say by over-greedy tax collectors, others by thieves). People began to argue over what belonged to whom. St. Basil received divine aid in sorting out these disputes. He asked some women to bake the treasures into a large loaf of bread. When
he sliced and distributed the pieces everyone miraculously received only their valuables.
As January 1 is the feast day of St. Basil, special religious services are held in his honor. These services feature the recitation of the Divine Liturgy written by St. Basil. Instead of celebrating birthdays, Greeks celebrate their name-day, that is, the feast day of the saint after whom they were named. January 1 is the name-day for all those named Vasil, Vasili, Vasiliki, Vasilia, Basil, and its English equivalent William.
Traditionally Greek families open their holiday GIFTS on St. Basil’s Day. Indeed, St. Basil, who visits Greek homes on New Year’s Eve, is the traditional CHRISTMAS SEASON gift bringer. In some places families left out little offerings of special foods — such as a glass of water and pomegranates, sweets, vasilópita, fish, or jellied pork pie — during the night for the saint to refresh himself. In recent years foreign influence has led some people to exchange presents on Christmas Day rather than on St. Basil’s Day.
Over the years plenty of superstitions and folk charms have attached themselves to New Year’s Day. People still observe some of them for fun. As one’s activities on New Year’s Day are thought to predict one’s preoccupations in the coming year, people try to avoid arguing, sobbing, or losing anything on this day. They seek out happy news and avoid thinking about sad things. Some eat sweets as a means of insuring they will have a “sweet” new year. Some people put on new clothes as a charm guaranteeing that they will be well groomed all year long. When dinnertime comes, tables are set with plenty of food, insuring that the family will enjoy abundant provisions in the months ahead.