Eastern Orthodox: St. Basil, an Eastern Father Christmas

SATURDAY, JANUARY 1: It’s a double feast in Orthodox churches today: St. Basil’s Day and the Circumcision of Jesus, an ancient remembrance related to the Nativity. (See our Twelve Days of Christmas story for more about this rich period of celebration.)

On St. Basil’s Day (and the vigil leading to the feast day), the Orthodox faithful recall the 4th-century saint who also is known as St. Basil the Great or Basil of Caesarea. Of course, to many children raised in the Greek Orthodox tradition—St. Basil has merged with Father Christmas and arrives with gifts and goodies on January 1 each year. In contrast, a majority of Christians around the world follow Western traditions associated with St. Nicholas of Myra. In ancient times, however, both men were pious church leaders who became famous for their generous spirits, so both are noble spiritual models. ReadTheSpirit earlier published a column about the December 6 celebrations surrounding St. Nicholas.

St. Basil: Confusion over a Cathedral

The most famous “St. Basil” in the world is the spectacular cathedral in Moscow, which Google recently featured in its Christmas artwork on the global search engine’s home page. However, that cathedral is named after a local, Russian St. Basil whose crypt lies in the enormous landmark. Perhaps that’s a fun bit of Basil trivia to clarify if you’re chatting with friends about the Eastern Father Christmas.

A Tasty St. Basil Day Custom: Vasiliopita

One tasty custom associated with the holiday is Vasiliopita. Millions of Greek families bake their own, each year. But, if you’re curious about the tasty custom and you’re not lucky enough to know an Orthodox family, then this is a great opportunity to look for an ethnic bakery in a town near you.

The Feast of St. Basil is a merry one in Greek and other Orthodox homes—and this rich bread, similar to a cake, is a big part of the celebration. Before baking, a coin is placed inside the cake and whoever receives the piece of cake with the coin inside is considered lucky for the new year. (Wikipedia has details.) Greeks visit family and friends today, sing carols and even set a place for the saint at their elaborate dinners.

St. Basil’s Life in What Is Now Turkey

Historical accounts hold that St. Basil was born in 330 CE in modern-day Turkey about a century after St. Nicholas of Myra. St. Basil was a Christian theologian and monastic who cared for the poor, established guidelines for monastic life and, perhaps most importantly, defined terms surrounding the Holy Trinity. St. Basil wrote about persons, reality, substance and three Persons in one Nature. Both Eastern Christians and Roman Catholics regard St. Basil as a “Doctor of the Church.”

Circumcision of Jesus

Christian tradition says that the Circumcision of Jesus occurred some days after his birth—as was the custom in his Jewish upbringing. On January 1, this rite of passage is honored in Eastern churches. (Find more at the Orthodox Christian Information Center, or at Wikipedia.) Perhaps more importantly, infants were given their names in this rite, and so the faithful remember in today’s feast that Jesus was given His holy name.

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