The Greek Vasilopita, or St. Basil’s Cake, with hidden gold coin, served on New Year’s Day.
In the land of our Cincinnati Chili Pioneers, Santa Claus comes on New Year’s Day, not Christmas. He’s a Bishop of Asia Minor, much like the Western Christian St. Nicholas, and his story is very similar. But to the Greeks, Macedonians, and Bulgarians of the Orthodox Christian Church, Santa Claus is Agios Vasileios, or St. Basil, and he comes bearing gifts on his feast day, the day he died in 379 A.D., January 1. Greek families celebrate his coming with the cutting of a very traditional cake, called the Vasilopita, which has a long standing ritual with it.
Here in Cincinnati you might be able to find a Vasilopita at places like Floyd’s Mediteranean Restaurant in Clifton, or at a celebration next weekend at St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Finneytown. If there is any Cincinnati chili parlor that would have a Vasilopita, it would be Greek owned Camp Washington Chili, but they’re closed on Sundays, which is New Year’s Day. Something tells me Johnny and his family will be celebrating with the cutting of the Vasilopita.
St. Basil was Bishop of Caesarea in Asia Minor. When the local military tyrant threatened the locals to hand over their gold, St. Basil was forced to ask the local poor to hand over their meager gold treasures. Legend has it that a miracle rid the city of the tyrant and the citizens were not forced to turn over their gold. When St. Basil went to return the people what he had collected, he baked bread for each household and put a gold coin or treasure into each loaf of bread. That’s how the tradition of the Vasilopita or St. Basil cake started.
St. Basil, or Agios Vasileios, the Greek Santa Claus.
The St. Basil cake is a traditional cake made with brandy and orange peel and juice – originally a luxury – and a gold coin placed inside. It’s a tradition very much like the King cake surrounding the coming of the three kings to the Nativity. Nowadays, many Greek families amp up the cake with icing and other ingredients to make it more interesting. Traditionally, the man or woman of the house makes a sign of the cross over the cake, and then starts cutting the pieces. The first piece is for Christ, then the Virgin Mary, then St. Basil, then the house. Enough already, what about us! Then the pieces are cut and named for each family member from the oldest to the youngest. The last pieces are named for the poor, and the house again. If the gold coin is found in one of the first four pieces, or the last two, then the coin is placed in the iconostasis, the corner of the house traditionally held for religious icons and the oil lamp.
Now the Kiradjieff’s of the first Cincinnati Chili Parlor, Empress Chili, Ivan and Athanas, married Bulgarian women. In Bulgaria, the tradition is practiced and they call the cake, banitza, which is more of a cheese pie than a cake, but it still houses a hidden gold coin. Additionally, groups of children in Bulgaria visit the houses of the village on New Year’s Day and tap each villager on the back with a stick known as a servachka, with its branches bent in circles and decorated with dried fruits, popcorn, colorful ribbons and wool. They wish everyone good health and luck in the new year and are rewarded with treats and presents.
I love this tradition and hope that it’s still widely practiced in Greek and Orthodox Christian families here in Cincinnati. I would love to have a recipe for the Vasilopita and the bantza, and would love to see either at a Cincinnati chili parlor in January!!