The tradition of baking and cutting a special “pita” (which can mean a loaf of bread, a cake, or even a pie!) each year on January 1″ is observed in honor of our Holy Father Basil the Great, archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia – hence its name Vasilopita. This tradition is observed in both parish churches and in the homes of the faithful. What is the meaning of this tradition and how did it begin? For centuries upon centuries parents, grandparents and Godparents have related the following story to Orthodox children about St Basil and the Vasilopita.
One year, during a time of terrible famine, the emperor levied a sinfully excessive tax upon the people of Caesarea. The tax was such a heavy burden upon the already impoverished people that to avoid debtors’ prison each family had to relinquish its few remaining coins as well as pieces of jewelry, including precious family heirlooms. Learning of this injustice against his flock, St Basil the Great, the archbishop of Caesarea, took up his bishop’s staff and the book of the holy Gospels and came to his people’s defense by fearlessly calling the emperor to repentance. By God’s grace, the emperor did repent! He cancelled the tax and instructed his tax collectors to turn over to St Basil all of the chests containing the coins and jewelry which had been paid as taxes by the people of Caesarea.
But now St Basil was faced with the daunting and impossible task of returning these coins and pieces of jewelry to their rightful owners. After praying for a long time before the icons of our Master Christ and His All-holy Mother, St Basil had all the treasures baked into one huge “pita.” He then called all the townspeople to prayer at the cathedral and, after Divine Liturgy, he blessed and cut the “pita,” giving a piece to each person. Wondrously each owner received in his piece of Vasilopita his own valuables. They all joyfully returned home, giving thanks to God who had delivered them from abject poverty and to their good and holy bishop, St Basil the Great.
In remembrance of that miracle wrought by God as a result of St Basil’s love and defense of his people, Orthodox Christians have observed the tradition of the Vasilopita each year on January 1st – the date on which St Basil reposed in the Lord in the year 379.
In some places the Vasilopita is prepared as a loaf of rich bread (like that used for Artoklasia), while in other places it takes the form of a spicy sheet cake (without frosting). But no matter what form a Vasilopita may take, they all have one thing in common – each contains a single coin. After placing the bread dough or batter in the proper baking pan, the baker makes with the foil wrapped coin the sign of the Cross over it, closes his/her eyes, and then secretly places it into the unbaked Vasilopita.
After the Vasilopita is baked and cooled, it is blessed and cut following Divine Liturgy for the feast of St Basil on January 1. At churches it is blessed and cut in the parish fellowship hall by the bishop or priest, and in homes it is blessed and cut by the head of the household. The blessing of the Vasilopita usually begins with the Apolytikion of St Basil the Great, chanted in tone 1:
Thy sound hath gone forth into all the earth that received thy word.
Thereby thou hast divinely taught the Faith;
Thou hast made manifest the nature of things that be;
Thou hast adorned the ways of man.
O namesake of the royal priesthood,1 our righteous Father Basil,
Intercede with Christ God that our souls be saved.
Then the following prayer may be said:
Let us pray unto the Lord. Lord, have mercy. O Creator of all things, Lord and King of the ages, plenteous in mercy and bountiful in goodness, who didst accept the Magi’s gifts in Bethlehem, who art the Bread of life that came down from heaven, who by Thine authority didst establish the seasons and the years and dost hold our life in Thy hands. Hear us who pray to Thee on this holy day upon our entrance into the new year of Thy goodness and bless (+) this loaf/cake, which has been offered to Thy glory and in honour of our Father among the Saints Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia. Do Thou who art Benevolent, look down from Thy holy heaven and send down upon us, upon those who have offered these gifts and upon them that partake thereof, Thine heavenly gifts, for our hope is in Thee, the living God, unto the ages. Bless this parish (home, school, foundation, etc) and our entrances and exits; replenish our life with all good things and direct our footsteps that we may keep Thy divine commandments, for man shall not live by bread alone; Through the intercessions of Thy Most pure Mother, of our Father among the saints Basil the Great and of all Thy saints who from all ages have been well pleasing to Thee. Amen.
1 In Greek the name Basil means “royal” or “kingly.”
The sign of the Cross is then made over the Vasilopita with a knife while saying, “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” All respond “Amen.” Then pieces of the Vasilopita are cut in the following order: The 1st piece is set aside for Christ, the 2nd piece for Theotokos, the 3rd piece for St Basil, and the 4th piece for the poor.
Then pieces are given to all present, beginning with the eldest and ending with youngest. He or she who receives the piece containing the coin is traditionally considered to be especially blessed for the New Year.
~Taken from the Department of Youth & Young Adult Ministries of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America: yyam@GOARCH.ORG, The Vasilopita (History): http://holyascensionnorman.org/files/education/Vasilopita.pdf.