The cutting of the Vasilopita is an annual New Year’s tradition for Greeks. Vasilopita is literally “Basil pie,” and celebrates St. Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappdocia (modern Turkey), whose feast day is on January 1 in Eastern Orthodoxy. The Vasilopita is a bread or cake and inside the cake is baked a coin. Whoever gets the slice of Vasilopita with the coin inside has good luck for the whole year!
The Legend of St. Basil
The legend of the Vasilopita comes from the life of St. Basil. The Roman Emperor Julian, known as “the apostate” since he practiced paganism, levied a large tax on the city of Caesarea, which was to be due when he returned that way after campaigning against the Persians in the East. The people brought all they had to Basil so that they could meet Julian’s tax and prayed for deliverance. Julian ended up dying in battle against the Persians and never returned, so the tax was never due. But Basil then had the problem of how to return all of the taxes to the people of Caesarea. So had had all of the coins, gold, gems, and wealth that the people had given to him for the taxes baked into sweetened bread. The bread was then given back to the people, who only discovered their wealth once they cut into the bread. This preserved the dignity of the people, instead of looking just like charity from the church.
There are a variety of such stories surrounding the myth of St. Basil and the Vasilopita. A different adaptation of the taxing story involves Basil convincing the emperor to repent and raise the tax. One story says that the wealth of Caesarea was collected to pay off a besieging army. Another tradition says that Basil baked coins into bread for the poor to aid them financially without embarrassing them by giving them the money directly. But all of the stories involve Basil baking coins into the bread, from where we get the tradition today.
The Vasilopita is a sweetened bread or cake. When the bread is still uncooked, the baker makes the sign of the cross and, without looking, buries the coin, wrapped in foil, inside the bread. The Vasilopita usually contains spices and ingredients that would once have been considered luxuries, such as citrus fruits, anise, mastic, cinnamon, wild cherries, and pomegranates. This is to honor Christ, the Virgin Mary (known in Greek Orthodoxy as the Theotokos), and St. Basil, all of whom receive honorary slices. The fourth, larger slice is for the poor. The rest of the slices are for those present, usually going from eldest to youngest. It is up to chance who receives the coin and receives luck for the new year!
In Other Cultures
The tradition of the Vasilopita has become part of many other Christian cultures as well, but it is mostly not associated with St. Basil in regions outside of Greece and Cyprus. In Armenia, a number of choreg are baked for Easter, with one of them containing the lucky coin. Ukrainians cut a pierogi. Serbians eat their česnica on Christmas. Bulgarians have their banitsa, a type of börek, which may include a coin, or another small object or even notes with good wishes on them. Romanians also have a similar tradition to the Vasilopita, and in Albania both Christians and Muslims follow the practice.
It has also entered parts of Western European culture, albeit not until after the Middle Ages. The term Vasilopita, while interpreted as “Basil’s pie,” can also mean “king’s pie.” In Greek, the name for Basil is Βασίλειος (Basileios) and the word for king is βασιλεύς (Basileus) – two very similar words! And in several Catholic countries, it has become known as king cake. It is consumed between Christmas Eve and Epiphany in France, Portugal, Spain, Latin America, and other countries. In addition to king cake, which it is known as in New Orleans and in many vernaculars, it is also known by geographically unique names such as roscón (Spain) and tortell (Catalonia and Southern France). In all of these cases, the bread or cake has historically expensive ingredients, such as citrus and candied fruits, and a sugar topping. The days when it is usually consumed in the west are on January 6, Epiphany, or the day the Three Wise Men reached Jesus, and also Mardi Gras.
However, it has some slightly different variations in the West. In New Orleans, for example, the king cake has a small plastic baby representing the baby Jesus either inside or underneath. In the Spanish roscón, there is a figurine and a bean. If you get the figure, you get to keep it if you sing, but if you get the bean, you have to pay for the cake. But originally the bean was the prize. Due to its availability centuries ago and the paucity of coins, a bean was the only object in the cake: getting it meant that you would be the king of the party and have good luck for the year. It was only later that the tradition morphed into both beans and figurines in Spain, or just figurines in some other countries.