The… vasilopita season
We have graciously entered the… vasilopita season. Our customs and traditions require that we cut the New Year cake on the morning of the first day of the year.
But let’s be honest; we already know that we will continue to enjoy our vasilopita (even if we publicly claim the opposite) up until February, during office, club or other organised events.
Vasilopita is believed to date back to the ancient Kronia festival (or the Roman festival of Saturnalia that followed), which was a celebration in honour of the god Cronus (Kronos), as its name would suggest. This version of the custom was then adopted by the Franks, who added the tradition of placing a coin within the pie, naming the lucky person who found it as the king of the evening.
It is also believed that vasilopita derived from the custom of celebrating the bread that ancient Greeks gifted to the goddesses during the big rural festivals of Thalysia and Thesmophoria.
Of course, things are very different based on the orthodox Christian tradition, which says that the origin of vasilopita is Caesarea of Cappadocia. At the time when Saint Basil the Great was Bishop, the Prefect of Cappadocia attempted to take over the town and loot it. Basil the Great then called on the rich to gather their jewellery and coins to hand over as ransom. The town miraculously managed to escape disaster and Basil the Great wanted to return the valuables. However, as he did not know who the owners were, he asked for small bread loafs to be baked and he placed the coins or jewellery within and shared them out to the inhabitants during the following Church service. And thus, the slicing of the vasilopita was established on Saint Basil the Great’s Name Day.
Just like the numerous versions of how the custom of vasilopita came about, there are also plenty of versions of how to make it. The “Smyrna” version usually prevails; a cake made with flour, eggs, sugar, milk, cognac and orange. In western Macedonia, vasilopita is often prepared in the form of a leek or cheese pie, while in other regions they make tsoureki. Usually the cake is decorated with the numbers of the new year, which can be written on with cake frosting/icing or flaked almonds.
The one thing that never changes is the ritual for slicing the vasilopita. The homeowner crosses it, slices it and shares it out to the family members, after first putting aside a slice for Jesus, Mother Mary, Saint Basil and perhaps family members living abroad. And every year, we congratulate the… usually constant winner of the coin and complain about our bad luck, just to see in a… good year.