Vassilopita is a traditional Greek cake or bread with a coin inside, named after St. Basil, which is made for New Year’s Day. Vassilopita is made in two ways. One is a sweet kind of brioche bread called “tsoureki” and the other an orange flavoured cake.
This year’s cake was decorated by my daughter, who is 14 years old.
Two Saints for Christmas
St. Nicholas or St. Basil?
Two saints are involved in giving presents to the children, two different persons, both of Greek origin and who were both bishops. One is St. Nicholas or Santa Claus for the West and the other is St. Basil, (in Greek Aghios Vassilios) or as he is also called Basil the Great, for the Orthodox.
Whoever Father Christmas you choose, St. Basil, from Caesarea or St. Nicholas, from Patara, they will live forever in our hearts to remind us of the great things they did.
St. Nicholas, was born at Patara, Lykia around 250AD, and became Archbishop in the city of Myra, in what is now Turkey, near Attalia, but which used to be part of Greece.
He loved the poor and helpless. He helped the poor by building shelters, poor houses, hospitals as well as other philanthropic institutions in his parish. We celebrate St. Nicholas Day on the 6th of December, the day of his death, and he is the patron of the children, the poor and of the seamen.See the whole story of St. Nicholas here.
The first Europeans who arrived in the New World brought St. Nicholas with them. They mixed various ancient myths and surrounded him by elves, fairies, a sleigh pulled by reindeers etc., and have set his home in the North Pole, a fascinating story which even the grown ups like.
His image as a fat man with white beard, round glasses and red clothes was created by a Coca Cola advertisement back in 1931.
St. Basil, on the other hand (in Greek Aghios Vassilios) lived in Caesarea, the capital of Kappadokia, which again was part of Greece. He came from a family who were also very religious. His father, who was also named Vassilios, was a rhetor and a lawyer and his mother was a very wise woman.His grandfather was a martyr, his brothers Gregorios and Peter were Bishops of Nyssa and of Sevasteia, respectively, his sister were dedicated to God and his sister Makrina is also a saint and who is the one who convinced him to devote himself to the Christian faith. One of his other brothers was a hermit in the dessert of Pontus.
St. Basil was born in 330 A.D. and studied philosophy in Athens, Greece. During his short lifetime he gave away all his property to the poor and did not keep anything for himself. The greatest of the things he did was to organize charity in his district. He would distribute clothes, food, money and any other help to those who needed it. He built close to Caesarea a city full of charitable institutions, hospitals, orphanages, hostels, homes for the elderly people etc., and he was named Vassilios the Great from the time he was alive. He died in December 378 (48 years old) and was buried on the 1stJanuary 379. It is said that people loved him so much that during his funeral apart from others fainting, some people died as well. The city he built was named after him, Vassiliada.
We commemorate his death on the 1st of January and we bake a cake which we call Vassilopita (the pie of Basil) in which a coin is placed inside.This tradition has to do with the following story:
During his lifetime, St. Basil was not afraid to confront even the emperor. Although Ioulianos, the emperor of Byzantium studied philosophy together with Vassilios in Greece, he worshipped the ancient Gods and hated Christians and was always trying to find ways to humiliate Vassilios. When the Byzantium declared war against the Persians he passed with his army from Caesarea. He ordered his men to impose taxes on the people, which he would collect after returning from the war. People were forced to give away money and jewellery. Ioulianos, however, never returned because he was killed in the war so whatever coins and jewellery were gathered, Vassilios distributed the half to the poor, some were kept for the institutions at Vassiliada and the remaining he ordered to bake breads for all the citizens. In each loaf he would place either a coin or a piece of jewellery inside the loaves of bread, for the people to find something in their bread and also to be fair with the distribution.The bread was then distributed to everyone in the area and to remember this we place a coin in the Vassilopita.
Whoever finds the coin is considered to be the lucky person in the family. Traditionally, the cake is cut by the head of the household and the first piece is allocated to the church (Holy Trinity and Virgin Mary), to the poor, to the seamen of the family and to family members who live abroad by degree of relatedness, then to the head of the household (male), his wife, their children (oldest to youngest), then to guests. The coin or small medallion, called flouri, is a tradition symbolizing an extra measure of good fortune for whoever gets the piece where it has been hidden during or after baking. In order to give more joy to the children some families also place a prize to the coin, so apart from a Christmas present the “lucky one” always gets an extra present as well during New Year.
Vassilopita (New Year’s Cake)
- 5 eggs
- 5 cups self raising flour
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 cup butter
- 1 cup orange juice
- 1 tsp orange or lemon zest
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1/3 cup brandy
- ½ cup of almonds blanched, roasted and ground
- Icing sugar for decoration or Royal icing (optional), see recipe here
- Preheat oven and roast almonds for about 15 minutes.
- Beat egg whites into meringue. In a bowl, mix flour, ground almonds and orange zest.
- Beat butter with sugar until smooth.
- Add egg yolks, brandy and dissolve the baking soda in the orange juice.
- Add flour and mix. Stop whisking with mixer and gently fold in egg whites with a spatula.
- Grease or line a 28 – 30 centimeters spring form pan with parchment paper and insert mixture.
- Wash a coin and fold into a small piece of aluminum foil.
- Place it in the batter.
- Bake in a preheated, oven to 180 degrees C, for about 1 hour or until a knife inserted into the centre comes out clean.
- Decorate with Royal Icing or just sprinkle icing sugar on top. (The icing decoration was made by my daughter).
You may hear the New Year’s Carols Here.
Throughout Europe and North America, Santa Claus is generally known as such, but in some countries the gift-giver’s name, attributes, date of arrival, and even identity varies. (information given below, from Wikipedia)
- Austria: Christkind (“Christ child”)
- Belgium: “Santa Claus”, called Père Noël by French speakers and Kerstman(“Father Christmas”) by Flemish speakers, is celebrated on Christmas day;Sinterklaas for the Flemish speakers, Saint Nicholas for the French speakers is celebrated on December 6th and his a distinct character with a more religious, catholic touch.
- Bulgaria: Дядо Коледа (Dyado Koleda, “Grandfather Christmas”), with the Russian-borrowed version of Дед Мороз (Djed Moroz, “Grandfather Frost”) being somewhat more widespread in Socialist times from the end of World War II until 1989 and still in favour nowadays. Town of Velikiy Ustjug in Vologda region is proclaimed to be his prmanent residence.
- Canada: Santa Claus (among English speakers); Le Père Noël (“Father Christmas”), among French speakers
- Croatia: Djed Božićnjak (“Grandfather Christmas”), used to be Djed Mraz (Grandfather Frost – Serbian term) before 1990, Mali Isus (“Baby Jesus”), Sveti Nikola (“Saint Nichlaus”) bringing gifts or rod on December the 6th
- Czech Republic: Ježíšek (diminutive form of Ježíš (“Jesus“))
- Denmark: Julemanden
- Estonia: Jõuluvana (“Old man of Christmas”)
- Finland: Joulupukki (“Yule Goat”)
- France: Le Père Noël (“Father Christmas”); Père Noël is also the common figure in other French-speaking areas)
- Germany: Weihnachtsmann or Nikolaus (“Christmas Man”); Christkind in southern Germany
- Greece: Άγιος Βασίλης (“Saint Basil”)
- Hungary: Jézuska or Kis Jézus (“child Jesus”); note that Mikulás (“Nicholas” as Santa Claus) has a separate feast day earlier (6th of Dec), puts candy in kids’ boots (which are to be polished and put in the window), but Mikulás is never involved in Christmas.
- Iceland: Jólasveinar. In Icelandic folktales, there are 13 Santa Clauses.
- Ireland: Daidí na Nollag (“Father Christmas”) among Irish speakers
- Italy: Babbo Natale (“Father Christmas”); La Befana (similar role as Santa Claus; she rides a broomstick rather than a sleigh, although she is not normally considered a witch); Gesù Bambino (“Baby Jesus“); Santa Lucia (A child saint “operating” in the Northern regions, bringing gift on December the 12th. As well as the Befana, an old lady, comes out on the Epifany, Jan 6th)
- Latvia: Ziemassvētku vecītis
- Liechtenstein: Christkind
- Lithuania: Kalėdų Senelis
- Luxembourg: Klaussenhofer
- Macedonia: Dedo Mraz
- Netherlands “Santa Claus”, called Kerstman (“Christmas Man”), is celebrated on Christmas day; Sinterklaas is celebrated on December 5th and his a distinct character with a more religious, catholic touch.
- Norway: Julenissen
- Poland: Święty Mikołaj / Mikołaj (“Saint Nicholas”)
- Portugal: Pai Natal (“Father Christmas”)
- Romania: Moş Crăciun (“Old Man Christmas”)
- Russia: Дед Мороз (Ded Moroz, “Grandfather Frost”)
- Scotland: Bodach na Nollaig (Scots Gaelic: Old Man of Christmas)
- Serbia: Deda Mraz (Деда Мраз – Grandfather Frost) – renamed from Božić Bata (Божић Бата – Christmas Brother) during the communist times after the World War II and moved from Christmas to New Year to prevent any religious connections
- Slovakia: Ježiško (Refers to newborn(baby) Jesus); note that Mikuláš (“Nicholas” as Santa Claus) has a separate feast day earlier (6th of Dec), puts candy in kids’ boots (which are to be polished and put in the window), but Mikuláš is never involved in Christmas
- Slovenia: Bozicek
- Spain: Papá Noel (Father Noel); the Tió de Nadal in Catalonia; Olentzero in the Basque Country. A more common and traditional Christmas present-giving figure in Spain are “Los Reyes Magos” (“The Three Kings“; “Magi“).
- Sweden: Jultomten (“The Yule/Christmas Gnome“)
- Switzerland: Christkind
- Turkey: Noel Baba (“Father Noel”) Also, Noel Baba is widely thought to bring new year presents in Turkey due to the country’s predominant Muslim population. Christmas is celebrated among the Christian communities.
- United Kingdom: Santa Claus, also known as Father Christmas though they were originally two quite different people, and Father Christmas did not originally bring gifts
- United States: Santa Claus; Kris Kringle; Saint Nicholas or Saint Nick
- Wales: Siôn Corn
Santa Claus in Latin America is generally referred to with different names from country to country.
- Argentina: Papá Noel, El Niño Dios
- Brazil: Papai Noel
- Chile: Santa Claus is called “Viejito Pascuero” (Old man Christmas)
- Colombia: El Niño Dios (“God child”), Papa Noel
- Costa Rica: San Nicolás or Santa Clos
- Dominican Republic: Santa Clos/Papá Noe
- Ecuador: El Niño Dios (“God child”), Papá Noel
- Mexico: Santa Claus (pronounced “Santa Clos”); El Niño Dios (“God child,” in reference to Jesus).
- Peru: Papá Noel
- Puerto Rico: Jesús (Christmas, Los Tres Reyes Magos (The Three Kings Day), Santa Clos.
- Venezuela: Niño Jesús (“child jesus”); San Nicolás (“Santa”). Depends on the region.
People in East Asia, particularly countries that have adopted Western cultures, also celebrate Christmas and the gift-giver traditions passed down to them from the West.
- China: 圣诞老人
- Hong Kong: 聖誕老人 (literally ‘The Old Man of Christmas’)
- Indonesia: Santa Claus or Sinter Klass (from Netherland Pronunciation )
- Japan: サンタクロース (Santa Kuroosu, or Santa-san)
- Korea: 산타 클로스 (Santa Harabeoji, or “Grandfather Santa”)
- Philippines: Santa Claus
- Taiwan: 聖誕老人 or 聖誕老公公 (both literally ‘The Old Man of Christmas’)
- Thailand: ซานตาคลอส (Santa Claus)
- Vietnam: Ông Già Nô-en (literally ‘The Old Man of Christmas’)
- India: ಸಾ೦ಟಾ ಕ್ಲಾಸ್ (in southern India)
- Tatarstan: Qış Babay/Кыш Бабай (Winter Grandfather)
- Uzbekistan: Qor Bobo (Snow Grandfather)
Africa and the Middle East
Christians in Africa and Middle East who celebrate Christmas generally ascribe to the gift-giver traditions passed down to them by Europeans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Descendants of colonizers still residing in these regions likewise continue the practices of their ancestors.
- Egypt: Baba Noel
- Iran: Baba Noel
- Israel: סנטה קלאוס (Santa Claus in Hebrew letters; note that most of the population in Israel is Jewish and does not recognize the entity known as ‘Santa Claus’)
- South Africa: Sinterklaas; Father Christmas; Santa Claus
Other related Recipes:
Kopiaste and Kali Orexi,