THE TRADITION - One of the more beautiful and inspirational traditions of the Greek Orthodox Church is the annual family celebration of the Vasilopita. This original 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.
The Greek word Vasilopita is directly translated as “Sweet Bread of Basil”. When the Vasilopita is prepared, a coin is baked into the ingredients. Sweet flavoring is added to the bread which symbolize the sweetness and joy of life everlasting. 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 observance begins, usually on New Years Day, the bread is traditionally cut by the senior member of the family, and the individual who receives the portion of the Pita which contains the coin is considered Blessed for the New Year.
Each portion of the Vasilopita are distributed as follows: The first portion is cut in remembrance of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The second is for the Holy Mother of our Lord, The Virgin Mary. The third is for St. Basil the Great, the other portions are cut for the members of the family beginning with the eldest. Portions may also be cut for the Church, the house, the traveler, the visitor and the poor.
THE HISTORY - This age old tradition commenced in the fourth century, when Saint Basil the Great, who was a bishop, wanted to distribute money to the poor in his Diocese. He wanted to preserve their dignity, so as not to look like charity, 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 coins.
THE MAN - St. Basil was one of the greatest Fathers of the Christian Church and appeared on the spiritual horizon of the Orthodox Faith. He was Bishop of Caesarea, Cappadocia (Asia Minor). He was born four years after the First Ecumenical Council held in the year 325 A.D. Saint Basil was one of the three Cappadocian Fathers of the Church (the others were Gregory of Nazianzus, his best friend, and his brother, Gregory of Nyssa).
Saint Basil was the first person in human history to establish an orphanage for little children. He also founded 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 clergymen in the entire history of the Church. His Feast Day is observed on January 1st, the beginning of the New Year and the Epiphany season. The Church, therefore, in respect for his many contributions to the Church and to mankind in general, combined the joy and happiness of the New Year with the glory of the birth of Christ, and the Epiphany into what is known in the Orthodox Church as the Vasilopitta Observance.