The Greek Santa’s name is not Father Christmas, nor Santa Claus and he doesn’t bring presents at Christmas.
His name is St. Basil and he brings presents to the Greek children on the 1st of January.
According to Orthodox tradition, St. Basil was born in the 4th century CE, before Christianity became the dominant religion. Despite studying in the “heathen” academies of Athens, he returned home to become a monk. Several years later, his fame as an ascetic and educated defender of Christianity had grown so, that he was invited to become bishop of Caesarea, a city in Asia Minor (modern-day Kayseri, in Turkey). His life is full of miraculous deeds, but it is said that giving away all his fortune led to the custom of giving presents on his feast, while his peculiar way of saving his bishopry sparked another tradition, that of the New Year’s Pie.
According to legend, a greedy and tyrannical local lord (or, in other versions, the emperor Julian the Apostate himself) threatened to level the city and the only way to save it would be for the citizens to collectively amass a huge ransom. Prodded by their bishop, St. Basil, the citizens of Caesarea duly brought their valuables to him for handing over to the enemy who was already besieging their city. However, the attacker was either persuaded to leave by St. Basil’s eloquence or else was killed by an army of Angels who descended in answer to the Saint’s prayrers.
Whichever the case, the Saint was left in possession of a huge treasure in the form of coins and jewellery. No one had hoped that the people would get their valuables back, so records had not been kept. Not knowing who gave what, St. Basil could not return the items to their proper owners, so he devised a clever trick: he ordered small loaves to be baked, one for every resident of the city, and placed some golden items in each, before they were baked. The loaves were then handed out to the citizens, leading to a formidable redistribution of wealth, for which most of the people were enormously happy (and some, I bet, quite the opposite).
Today, most people believe that this story sparked the tradition of the Vasilopita, or New Year’s Pie, with the hidden coin within. To the historian and the archaeologist in me this sounds a bit suspicious, since there is evidence that the custom has pagan roots and dates long before St. Basil.
But worries like these never stopped this archaeologist from enjoying a well-baked Vasilopita, and I have fond memories of my younger days when I could hardly sit still for impatience, hoping the coin would end up in my slice. Today I find myself playing the patriarch, cutting the cake with an air of solemnity, and hiding my smile as my two boys fidget in their seats, eyes riveted at the knife. I find the mark my wife’s left for me on the cake and cut deeply, an accomplice in the conspiracy of happiness. The noise of the knife hitting metal is heard and the children shriek with excitement…
Wishing you all a year full of happiness.
(Note: the post has been updated with a new picture; the cake of 2013 didn’t rise to the occasion, if you get my meaning.)