Were you the lucky one who got the coin in the Vasilopita this year? I wasn’t. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I was so lucky. The thing with luck is those who have it tend to get it over and over; those who don’t well, they never do. And I’ve always wondered is there a way you can make yourself luckier, like, is there an exercise or some sort of shop you can visit that gives you that elusive quality? All I know this year as well as many in the past I have held my breath as the long kitchen knife went into the soft sweet flesh of the Vasilopita to hear a the scrape of metal against metal if by chance the knife finds the coin in between the cuts of the pieces of the cake. I remember one year we cut the Vasilopita and each one diligently either ate or ripped through their piece to find–tipota–it was a dud. It seems the local pastry shop had either gotten stingy or else decided it was too expensive to put quarters in the thousands of Vasilopitas that fly out their shop like hotcakes this time of year. What a bummer! No one was lucky that year.
But just in case you feel this might be your year, read this short article and get the scoop on the man who brought this tradition to our table and our culture.
The scholar Hasbuck traced back the tradition to the ancient Greek Kronia, the festival of King Cronus. This festival selected a “king” by lottery by a gold coin. But the tradition like the pie gets its name from the legend of Saint Basil. A very generous man and outspoken champion of the poor, the story goes that St. Basil called on the citizens of Caesarea to raise a ransom to stop the siege of the city. Each member of the city gave whatever they had in gold and jewelry. When the time for the barbarians (in some versions a greedy evil emperor) came to collect the ransom, they were put to shame by the community’s collective gift giving so they never took the loot. St. Basil, however, was left with a stash of gold jewels, coins and other valuables, without a tracking system. How could he return to each citizen their rightful possession? He had an idea; he would bake loaves of bread, stash pieces of jewelry in each one, and then distribute the loaves during Sunday liturgy to all the faithful. By a miracle, it so happened that each person who had donated a piece of jewelry received the very same one in the loaf they had gotten from the hand of St. Basil. To commemorate the event and to ring in the new year which is incidentally the feast day of St. Basil, Greek families have kept the tradition from the Byzantine era.
Just before you think, Greeks are the only ones with this tradition, similar traditions take place in Western Europe especially around Twelfth Night and Epiphany. The French have Gateau des Rois or Galette des rois, the Catalans have tortell, and those in Louisiana keep the French tradition of “King Cake.”
And while we are on the subject of Greek new year traditions, our little ones in the Diaspora will most likely be confused over the looming figure of Santa Claus. Although Santa Claus has become a cultural icon adopted by cultures as contrary to American as China or India, technically Greeks don’t believe in him. He is not responsible for bringing children presents under the tree. He certainly is not fat and does not climb down chimneys to deliver goods. Santa Claus is derived from Saint Niklaus, a Dutch-Germanic variation of the name, Saint Nick. Saint Nick, the same one we believe in who was the Bishop in Cappodoccia, even though quite kind and generous with many acts of charity under his belt, is nevertheless not the guy we Greeks believe brings presents. It is Saint Basil. And in Athens, where I grew up, kids get their presents delivered under their beds, not under the tree. So when they wake up to a New Year, they have new gifts, probably new pants, shoes, and other items necessary to living, hardly PlayStations and XBoxes.
In any case, have a Kali Chronia and may you be lucky with or without the coin!