Greece’s New Year tradition: Vasilopita and the Golden Coin
We are in Greece where, on New Year’s Day, a centuries-old tradition is observed in almost every household, that of Vasilopita (meaning St. Basil’s Cake), a sweet-tasting lucky treat. Across the country, recipes are quite a few, but they all have one basic ingredient: the much sought-after flouri, or lucky coin.
Its story began in the Greek antiquity period, when ancient Greeks would offer bread and honey-kneaded sweets to honour the gods during the major harvest festivals.
Today the New Year’s Day Cake custom is kept everywhere in Greece, and the variety of modern recipes used is connected to the culinary tradition of each area: sweet bread, cake or tsoureki, but also phyllo dough sheet sweet or savoury pies made in Macedonia and Epirus. In Athens, the most popular recipe for the New Year’s Day Cake is the one called Politiki Vasilopita and the main ingredients are flour, eggs, sugar and milk. It comes in all shapes and types but usually it is a sweet puffy cake.
On Zante Island, bread is kneaded with sourdough, almonds and spices, while on Crete it is kneaded with tsikoudia (or raki, a local strong spirit) and powdered mastic drops. In the north of Greece, locals prepare a pie made with sesame or a sweet pumpkin pie, on Lesvos Island it is made with myzithra cheese, and in Epirus Region pies are filled with meat (lamb or pork), feta cheese and plenty of spearmint.
There are also differences in the way they are decorated or sized, although some decorations are used on most Vasilopitas: traditionally, the number of the New Year is written with blanched almonds or with sugar, in a round shape, with the must-have flouri, a coin which may sometimes be a gold or a silver one, placed in the dough before or after it is baked.
According to the Greek Orthodox narrative, when St. Basil (330AD-379AD) was bishop of Caesarea, in Cappadocia (modern day Central Anatolia), the then Prefect of Cappadocia visited the town to collect taxes. The scared Caesareans, following the advice of their prelate, gathered whatever precious items they possessed and went out to greet the prefect. Saint Basil managed to persuade him not to deprive the locals of their valuables.
However, a new problem arose: how to return the precious items to their rightful owners!
St. Basil asked the locals to prepare small pies and then he placed one piece inside each pie and, by miracle, each one got back the item they owned.
Locally know as Agios Vasilis, the Saint is also Santa Claus according to Greek Christmas traditions. Greeks associate gift giving with Saint Basil himself, an old man with white beard and red cape. His feast day is on 1st of January, so this is the day that Greeks usually exchange gifts, while Agios Vasilis comes to every home on Christmas Eve carrying gifts for the children.
On modern days, the table on New Year’s Day is laid with an assortment of delicious dishes and traditional sweets with honey, even though the star of the day is none other than vasilopita!
The cake is a symbol of good luck for the new year and everyone gathers around the table in happy anticipation of the cutting process, as, according to popular belief, the person who finds the lucky coin (flouri) will have good fortune all year long!
According to Greek Christmas traditions every year after midnight on New Year’s Eve the householder to make the sign of the cross on the cake with a knife and then start cutting the pieces and naming the owner of each piece: the first piece is for Christ, the second is for Virgin Mary, the third is for St. Basil, the fourth is for the house, and some people also cut a piece for the poor. The following pieces are given to family members by order of age. In other parts of Greece, especially in villages, the livestock, the family field, the fishing boat and the mill all get their own piece of the cake…
Images from web – Google Research