New Year is when the main festivities take place in Greece. It is on New Year’s Day that gifts are given to each other and children wake up to find presents left in their shoes from St Basil, who had visited during the night.
Legend has it that St Basil died on January 1st and he was one of the forefathers of the Greek Orthodox Church. He is remembered for his great kindness and stories are told about his generosity to the poor. A New Year cake is baked in his honor called Vassilopitta or St Basil's cake, inside the cake is placed a silver or gold coin. This stems from a story about Saint Basil who helped the poor people pay their taxes by taking a piece of jewelry from everyone to give to the Governor. The Governor then felt sorry for the people and gave the jewelry back to Saint Basil who baked each piece inside a loaf. Miraculously, when the loaves were given out, each person had their own jewelry back.
The Vassilopita is a sweet yeast bread that is perfumed with grated orange rind and cinnamon. The round cakes are baked in different ways, but always have the year etched or embossed on top with dough or confectioner's sugar. At midnight on New Year’s Eve the cake is portioned out in a strict order, the first piece for St Basil, the second for the house, then from the most senior household members down to the youngest, not forgetting absent people. Whoever finds the coin in their piece will be lucky for the following year.
All manner of foods accompany the centre piece of Vassilopita on the New Year’s Eve table of goodies or kaloudia. There are flaky Greek pastries or thiples, fresh and dried fruits with a variety of nuts and honey. Melomakarona are baked which are spicy, honey dipped cookies, sprinkled with nuts and sesame seeds. There are kourabiedes or shortbread and it is hoped that St Basil will pass by and taste and bless the food which will ensure abundance on the table throughout the coming year.
As it is considered a lucky time of year it is customary to have a quick game of cards or dice while waiting for the Greek Santa to pass by and bless the food and deliver a few ‘shoe’ fillers to the children.
Photos courtesy of flickr - elenikiokia, vlavag and katherine H. Wikimedia commons.