By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
This year I chose the subject "The Meaning Behind the Holy Vasilopita," which is important and we will highlight certain important views.
1. The Origin of the Custom of the Vasilopita
Every year we cut the vasilopita either in our homes or in social places, but we do not know exactly what are the origins of this custom.
The folklorist Demetrios Lokatos gives us some information about the origin of the custom of the vasilopita, and primarily emphasizes three facts from which this custom arose.
The first is the "festive bread" which we find among the ancient Greeks, and is connected with worship and festivals, which were the first fruits, but also the symbol of strengthening the gathering of those who celebrated. This tradition is maintained even today in the Divine Office of Artoklasia during Vespers for the feasts of saints, and it continues as well with the so-called Christopsomo (Christ Bread) at Christmas, the Vasilokouloura (Basil Cookies) at New Years, and the Lamprokouloura (Bright Cookies) at Pascha.
The second is the "honey cake", or "melitoutta" of the ancient Greeks. They were cakes offered by the ancient Greeks to the gods of Hades on behalf of the dead. Apparently the honey and the cake used in this case was to sweeten Hades for the benefit of the dead. The term "honey cake" reminds us of honey words, namely words spoken in a beautiful and sweet way. That honey cakes were offered to the gods of Hades is seen by the fact that it was cut at nighttime or during the period of Twelve Days, which according to popular belief was the period when souls were agitated. This is considered to have been continued with the kollyva at Memorial Services or with the bread offered at Memorials that is smeared with sugar.
The third is the "test of luck." People always wanted to know about their future, such as what will happen to them, and this was even done in Roman times either at the beginning of some period, or the beginning of the month, or the beginning of the year. According to this tradition, health, joy, success and wealth on the first day ensures this status for the entire period or month or year. This is why in Byzantium they would put a hidden object or coin in breads or cakes on these days.
2. The Name "Vasilopita"
The vasilopita is a development of these three things that began in ancient Greece, namely the "festive bread," the "honey cake," and the "test of luck." The name "vasilopita," however, is connected with two events, as Demetrios Lokatos again analyzes for us.
The first is the connection with the word "king" ("vasileus") and the dinner festivals done by the ancients. According to Demetrios Lokatos, in Roman times there was a custom to have banquets on the days of the New Year and the Twelve Days, and with a lottery of beans they would elect a king for the night. The one who found a bean inside a cake became the king of the night, and even if they were inconspicuous or a slave they acquired honors and glories and they let him behave with freedom, to the point where they would even have orgies. Whoever won this particular object that was in a cake was lucky that night, and for the entire year transmitted happiness to whoever they came into contact with. He would wear a fake crown on his head and offered to eat or distribute a desert called "vasiloglyko" or "vasilopita" ("royal desert" or "royal cake"). Sometimes this desert offering took place even before he was chosen to be "king."
The second event is that the name vasilopita comes from a miracle that took place during the time of Basil the Great (Megas Vasilios). According to this, Christians gave jewelry and various precious items to offer to the Eparch of Cappadocia who was going to Caesarea to levy heavy taxes. When Basil the Great persuaded the Eparch to not take the gifts of the Christians or the taxes, then Basil ordered the people to bake small cakes and place the scattered precious objects in each of them. In a wondrous way each person received what they had offered.
Analyzing all this, it clearly shows the relationship between ancient Greece and Christianity. Christianity took in all the positive elements of Hellenism, installed them within traditions, discharging the meaning it once had and charging it with new meaning. Thus, Hellenism with its language, terminology and traditions were immersed in the baptismal font of Christianity and took on new strength and meaning, managing in this way until today to be our universal and timeless traditions.