Feast of St. Basil: Orthodox celebrate an ancient Christian hero

Cake with '2011' made of blanched almonds

Vasilopita, a Greek Orthodox cake traditionally made for the Feast of St. Basil, is often decorated with blanched almonds in the shape of the New Year. Photo by Sofia Gk, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 1: The Feast of the Circumcision is celebrated with hymns from St. Basil in Eastern Orthodox churches today, as devotees observe both the Circumcision of Christ and the Feast of St. Basil the Great. Across Greece, kitchens and bakeries are filled with the fragrance of baking Vasilopita, or St. Basil’s Cake. Recognized this year among USA Today’s “14 Holiday Desserts Worth a Trip,” vasilopita is characterized by its sweet ingredients, which are placed in the bread to symbolize the sweetness of life. Beyond a basic recipe, however, vasilopita varies greatly by region: It can be everything from a kneaded, bread-like version to a richer, denser cake. Whatever the recipe, Greeks believe that the “bread of Basil” brings good luck to a household in the year to come. Each household’s senior member slices the cake, and one lucky participant receives in his piece the coin that was hidden in the bread, which traditionally brings him luck for the coming year.

Are you fascinated by food-and-faith customs around the world? Then, you’re sure to enjoy our Feed The Spirit department with Bobbie Lewis. And, you’ll enjoy our book by Lynne Meredith Golodner, The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads.

ST. BASIL THE GREAT:
A PATH ‘ALL IN THE FAMILY’

In contrast to the many saints who left their wealthy families to pursue an ascetic life, St. Basil the Great came from a family of steadfast, righteous Christians and maintained those family ties. Born to Basil the Elder and Emmelia in Caesarea of Cappadocia in 329 or 330 CE (dates vary), St. Basil the Great claimed a martyred grandfather and a mother and father renowned for their piety. Eventually, four of Basil’s siblings would become regarded as saints.

As a youth, St. Basil studied in Constantinople and Athens, eventually following his sister’s advice to turn from academics and law to a simpler, more virtuous life. (Learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.) In approximately 370 CE, Basil was elected as a bishop. This was the ancient era when what we would now consider orthodox Christian leaders, including Basil, were locked in a dispute that became known as the Arian controversy. Basil was highly respected, even by his opponents—so much so that the Arian Emperor Valens even asked for prayers over his gravely ill son, which Basil did, and the boy healed.

Man at long table cutting into a vasilopita cake

Cutting into a vasilopita cake. Photo by Sixskinsia, courtesy of Flickr

Basil died on Jan. 1, 379 CE, at age 49. He left behind hundreds of theological letters that discuss the mysteries of creation and the Holy Trinity, in addition to thoughts on monastic communal life—which are held in such high regard that they earned him the title, “the Great.” Numerous religious orders in Eastern Christianity bear his name, as do the Roman Catholic Basilian Fathers. Basil is recognized as a saint in both Eastern and Western Christianity.

ST. BASIL THE GREAT:
A GREEK ‘FATHER CHRISTMAS’

In Greece, children await January 1 with great anticipation, as both feasts and gifts await them on this special day. On the eve of Jan. 1, adults and children carol New Year’s songs from house to house, and children believe that St. Basil delivers them gifts at night. On Jan. 1, feasts are prepared as abundantly as possible, in the belief that the more lavish the table, the more plentiful blessings will be in the New Year. Pork and the vasilopita are mainstays of every Greek table, and the senior member of the household makes a sign of the cross over the vasilopita before cutting into it.

In the Roman Catholic calendar of saints, St. Basil’s feast is observed on Jan. 2.

Looking for a fun way to observe St. Basil’s Day? Try baking a vasilopita, singing carols and reciting a table blessing, courtesy of Catholic Culture.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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