The Basil-Cake of the Greek New Year (Margaret M. Hasluck, 1927)

NOTE: The following article is excerpted from Folklore, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Jun. 30, 1927), pp. 143-177. A link to the full 36 page pdf. is contained at the end of this article.

Vasilopita (Agia Skepi, 2016)
Vasilopita from Holy Protection Monastery (Whitehaven, PA)

As unfailingly as turkey and plum pudding are eaten in England at Christmas, a certain cake is eaten at the New Year over practically the whole Greek area. Round, flat, and thin, savoury oftener than sweet, it is a glorified edition of the pasties which form the staple food of many poor Greeks. The reason for its figuring on New Year menus is commonly said to be the commemoration of St. Basil, the fourth-century bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia who is celebrated by the Greek church on the first of January.1 Accordingly its usual name, basilopitta (βασιλόπιτα), is interpreted as meaning cake of Basil

THE CEREMONY

When ready, the cake is cut up in the presence of the whole family. The cutter is always the most important person present, the (male) head of the household, the eldest male present, or, failing them, the house-mistress… Immediately before inserting the knife, the divider invariably makes the sign of the cross with the knife across the cake… The cutting follows a traditional course. A round is first cut out in the centre, and from the edges of this round lines are drawn like the spokes of a wheel to the circumference. When the whole cake has been thus separated into segments, the portions are allotted. The round from the centre, considered the most important, is generally set aside for St. Basil. Since the ceremony is in his honour, this provision is only fitting. But sometimes, by an apparent anomaly, the centre piece is reserved for the house or for the Virgin Mary. In such a case St. Basil has to content himself with the first of the side pieces. But there again he may be ignored in favour of Christ or some saint other than himself who happens to be a favourite with the family.” He may even be ignored altogether. That is to say, at the ceremony said to commemorate him he may play only a secondary part, or even no part at all. The saints having received their dues, pieces are generally set aside in agricultural households for the cattle, sheep, goats, and even the inanimate property of the family. Then the remaining pieces are distributed, as in other households, among the members of the family, whether present or not at the New Year gathering. This distribution may be mechanical, that is, according to age and sex, the old taking precedence over the young and the male over the female. [NOTE: In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, the sequence of pieces cut is usually Christ first, then Panagia, the Saint of the monastery and Geronda Ephraim. Afterwards, pieces are cut for the monastics. If the superior decides to cut the Vasilopita with the laymen who are there, then they come after the monastics in the following order: children first, then the men and the women, as usual, are always last]…

 

On New Year’s Day Greek families cut the Vasilopita to bless the home and to bring good fortune for the New Year. The head of the household uses a knife to etch a Cross over the face of the cake.
On New Year’s Day Greek families cut the Vasilopita to bless the home and to bring good fortune for the New Year. The head of the household uses a knife to etch a Cross over the face of the cake.

All the mystification which surrounds the cake is to heighten the excitement of finding a coin which it contains. This coin brings good luck. Thus, if the finder is the head of the house, he will prosper in all his undertakings during the coming year. If unmarried, he or she will be married or at least betrothed before the year is out. If a child, he or she will have a happy year. If one of the saints other than Basil, the family as a whole will enjoy prosperity. If St. Basil himself, the general prosperity will reach the highest possible pitch. [NOTE: In traditional Orthodox households, finding the coin is said to be a blessing. In more secular households, the coin is said to bring good luck. The baking of sacred cakes into which objects associated with luck or abundance were placed (including silver coins) also took place on other holidays, including those that were originally pagan feast days].

The coin is generally any small silver coin that is in ordinary currency… In normal practice the nature of the hidden coin is without intrinsic significance, for it is merely an instrument by which the luck of the coming year may be divined…

Once the coin has been found in the basilopitta, the saints’ pieces of cake, whether they contained the coin or not, and the coin itself have to be disposed of. The children, who are seldom lacking in a Greek household, attend to the former, eating them up after their own portions. The coin meets various fates. It may be worn by the finder as a charm, or it may be hung up beside the house-eikons for the general good. In Trebizond a girl finder puts it under her pillow, and hopes it will show her future husband in a dream. In agricultural villages it is carefully preserved until seedtime. Then it is sewn on the first sack of seed-corn which is carried out to the fields. It protects the growing crops against the evil eye, and it ensures a bountiful harvest. Very rarely a finder is sceptical enough to spend the coin like any other and to throw its luck away…

Vasilopita Coin with Collectors Case & Recipe.
Vasilopita Coin with Collectors Case & Recipe.

ST. BASIL IN CAPPADOCIA

Let us ask why St. Basil should be commemorated at all with a cake. No reason can be given off-hand. His life is amply, if not always correctly, documented, but no document mentions the basilopitta. Oral tradition is not much more helpful. The most pertinacious inquiries from Greek peasants elicit only the foolish answer, “it is our custom” (sc. to eat the cake). Such poverty of invention is noteworthy, for popular legend is usually only too ready to explain a saint’s attributes, material and otherwise, by some real or alleged incident in his life, and from popular circulation the explanation normally finds its way into hagiologies. But of St. Basil and his cake we can find no explanatory legend,-until we go to Constantinople.

st-basil-vasilopita-300x300
In the history of Cappadocia, St. Basil’s own country, his cake is unknown; i.e. the Vasilopita tradition is not observed there.

There Mr. Ph. Koukoules collected from schoolboys a folktale1 which appears to contain the information we seek. It may be summarised as follows:

“At the time when St.. Basil was bishop of Caesarea, a particularly avaricious and oppressive governor ruled over that province. On one occasion this governor intimated a desire to visit the town of Caesarea. At the news a great trembling fell on the people, but St. Basil bade them collect all their valuables and go out and present them to the governor when he arrived. They obeyed the saint, and the governor, melted by the apparent warmth and splendour of his welcome, refused to accept any of the presents and went on his way. As soon as he was gone, St. Basil found himself in a difficulty about returning the presents to their rightful owners. He therefore devised the stratagem of having a number of cakes made in which the various articles were concealed. The cakes were distributed the following Sunday, and by a miracle each man received the cake which contained his property. In commemoration of St. Basil’s device Christians insert a coin in the cake which they eat on St. Basil’s day.” At first sight this tale appears to explain the basilopitta most satisfactorily. Why, then, is it not more widely known ? Why is it not in popular currency in Greece as distinct from Constantinople? The answer to such questions may be deduced from a story told in the Life of St. Basil by the pseudo-Amphilochios. In brief summary the relevant passage is as follows : “Once upon a time the Emperor Julian passed through Caesarea on his way to the Persian wars. Meeting St. Basil, he informed him that he meant on his return to raze the town to the ground because of its attacks on paganism. During his absence at the wars, St. Basil, hoping that rich gifts might turn him from his cruel purpose, collected money and other valuables from the citizens to give him on his return. But Julian died before he could come back to carry out his threat. Then St. Basil, who had carefully labelled each article as received with its owner’s name, wished to give the citizens back their property. But in gratitude for their deliverance they refused to take it back and bestowed it on the church.” 2

chapel-of-St-basil-cappadocia
Chapel Of Saint Basil, Cappadocia Turkey

It is clear at once that a connection exists between the folktale from Constantinople and the story from the Life of St. Basil. The nature of the connection is made clear both by chronology and style. The folktale must be new. Otherwise it would have been found outside Constantinople. The story is of uncertain age. It does not occur in the version which Ursus (858-67 A.D.) 3 made of the pseudo-Amphilochian Life, the omission being excusable enough since the alleged meeting between Julian and St. Basil can hardly have taken place.4 The editions of the Life, however, which give the story, are several centuries old.5 Such chronological considerations bring us to the conclusion that the story, being comparatively old, is the parent of the folktale, which is recent. This putative relationship accords with the way in which the theme is handled in the two versions. In the Life, St. Basil is business-like and Julian’s name is recorded. In the folktale, St. Basil has to call a miracle to his aid and Julian has sunk to a nameless “governor.” Such a difference in crispness is thoroughly characteristic of the literary as opposed to the popular rendering of a subject,6 and confirms our conclusion that the folktale is a literary bastard. Its consequent elimination leaves us without any literary .or genuinely popular explanation of St. Basil’s association with the lucky basilopitta, as our analysis of early written evidence destroyed the usual explanation of his association with 1st January, the date of the basilopitta.

Now the tale collected by Koukoules mentions the basilopitta, whereas the other tale [the Inje Su tale] does not do so. The Greeks from whom Koukoules collected his version were presumably interested in the basilopitta and correspondingly ready in true folklore fashion to believe, or to invent, a plausible aetiological legend which explained its peculiarity. On the other hand, the “avocat” of Inje Su was not interested in the basilopitta. For in Cappadocia, St. Basil’s own country, his cake is unknown.

My authority for making such a statement is the present bishop of Kastoria. A native of Silleh in Cappadocia, he states that at the New Year Cappadocians eat, not the basilopitta, but “forty sweets,”7 commemorating, not St. Basil, but the Circumcision of Christ. The principle involved, he pointed out, reappears in the feasting by which a mortal’s circumcision is accompanied. The mystic importance in the Near East of the number “forty ” is a commonplace.”8 It is not only with regard to the basilopitta, however, that the Cappadocians are unorthodox in their treatment of St. Basil. As is well known, Greeks usually observe Ist January as his festival and sing carols9 in his honour. In Cappadocia priests chant his office on 1st January, but the people postpone his festival till Easter Saturday and Pentecost.10 On those days the whole population of Caesarea, for instance, goes out to Mount St. Basil, the Ali Dagh11 of the Turks. There they honour the saint by indulging in the favourite Greek pastime of roasting and eating lambs in the open air. To this mountain, says Levides,12 quoting the pseudo-Amphilochios, St. Basil retired to entreat God to soften Julian’s heart and avert his threat to Caesarea….

St. Basil the Great gives three loaves to the Emperor Julian the Apostate. Picture bible. France, circa 1200.
St. Basil the Great gives three loaves to the Emperor Julian the Apostate. Picture bible. France, ca 1200.

Our examination of St. Basil’s standing in his native country, Cappadocia, thus shows that, so far as the basilopitta, carols, and festival are concerned, St. Basil is not commemorated there as elsewhere in the Greek world. Since Cappadocian traditions can hardly fail to be nearer to the facts, this result suggests that the methods of commemorating the saint in the outside Greek world have little or no historical basis. In that world, too, it will be remembered, divination of the year’s luck rather than commemoration of the saint seemed the main purpose of the basilopitta. No genuinely popular tradition exists there to connect the saint with the cake. His festival seemed to have been ordained for 1st January, the day consecrated to the basilopitta, for extraneous reasons. We are therefore bound to wonder whether he has any real connection with the cake.

ST. BASIL IN OTHER ORTHODOX CHURCHES

Our wonder increases when we consider the practice of the daughter churches of the Greek rite. They all celebrate St. Basil on 1st January, and eat a New Year cake which contains a lucky coin, but they do not associate the saint with their cakes.

Ukraine

In Little Russia a pirog (pastry) is baked on New Year’s Eve and contains a lucky coin. The pirog is cut into pieces at dawn on New Year’s Day, and divided among members of the family. He who finds the coin is given presents by the others, for it is thought that he is lucky and will bring luck to the others. But St. Basil is not associated with the ceremony.

Romania

Similarly, the Romanians  eat a special cake on New Year’s Eve and draw lots to determine the relative degree of prosperity which each person may expect during the year, but they make no reference to St. Basil.

Serbia

The Serbs bake a cake called chesnitza.13 It contains a lucky coin, but is eaten on Christmas Day and is not associated with St. Basil.

Česnica
The česnica was used in folk magic for divining or influencing the amount of crops.

Albania

Albanians also, whether Christian or Mohammedan, eat a cake with a lucky coin at the New Year, but they call it simply pitta (cake, pastry) and do not refer it to the saint.14

Bulgaria

Bulgarian practice varies. Within the kingdom, a cake containing a lucky coin is eaten at either Christmas or the New Year. On the whole, Christmas is the date preferred. The cake is called pogatcha (flat cake) or Novogodichna banitza (New Year’s cake), and no allusion is made to St. Basil. Bulgars from East Macedonia have told me that they eat two cakes, one on Christmas Eve and the other at the New Year. Both contain lucky coins. The Christmas cake is called para bogatcha14  (coin cake), and the other Svity Vasileva bogatcha (St. Basil’s cake, basilopitta). Bearing in mind Mrs. Garrett’s information from the kingdom of Bulgaria, one may perhaps infer that the para bogatcha is the real cake of Macedonian Bulgars, and that their basilopitta has been borrowed from their Greek neighbours. My informants were patriarchists, i.e. adherents of the Greek Patriarch rather than the Bulgarian Exarch, and as such would be particularly sympathetic towards Greek customs.

But, even if we accept the basilopitta .of Macedonian Bulgars as a genuinely Bulgarian, and not a borrowed, institution, we find the evidence overwhelming that by the daughter churches of the Greek rite St. Basil is not associated with the New Year cake. Stated otherwise, over a large area bordering on Greece eating a lucky New Year cake similar to the basilopitta is an established custom which seems entirely independent of saints. Such a conclusion increases the probability that St. Basil has been connected with the basilopitta of Greece for artificial reasons.

Even in Greece saint and cake are not inseparable. In the Ionian Islands the cake is called, not basilopitta, but κουλούρα της γωνίας (corner ring-cake) or χριστόπιτα (Christcake), and it is eaten, not on New Year’s Day, but on Christmas Eve.15 No reference whatsoever is made to St. Basil during the ceremony of partaking. In view, then, of all these difficulties, is not the Basil of the basilopitta different from the saint of Caesarea? And if he is different, who and what is he?

St. Columba's Bannock
St. Columba’s Bannock: On St. Columba’s feast day in Scotland, an oaten cake is baked in his honor, and a coin is placed in the dough. The child that finds the coin receives the honor of being put in charge of the new lambs for the next twelve months, an office very popular with small shepherds.

A PARALLEL

A hint of the answer to these questions is given by the word basilopitta. On the analogy of such words as basilopaidi, basilopoulo, and basilopoula, which occur frequently in Greek folktales with the respective meanings of ” child of the king ” (or ” kings “), ” son of the king ” (or ” kings “), ” daughter of the king ” (or ” kings “), basilopitta may be translated ” cake of the king ” (or ” kings “) as correctly as ” cake of Basil.” …

Thus the custom of selecting a King of the New Year revels seems to have extended right across Europe from Greece to France and England. The cakes of Albania, Bulgaria, and Serbia are referable perhaps to the same custom, but the evidence available at this stage is not conclusive.

3 kings cake
Three Kings Cake

AN IDENTIFICATION

Who, then, is this “king” of the basilopitta? …

One feature of the Saturnalia was that men drew for a king with a bean, and held high revelry under his leadership for the duration of the festivities…

In Greece the festival was identified “by the unanimous voice of antiquity” with the festival of Kronos,16 the ancient god whose right to the title of ” king ” was pre-eminent.17 To Pindar he was ” ruler.”18 To Julian he was “King Kronos” as distinguished from “Father Zeus.”19 At Athens his consort Rhea was “Queen.”20 His priests at Olympia were called “kings.”21 Each year he resumed his ancient royalty throughout Greece for a period of seven days.22 In the reign of Maximian and Diocletian, less than a hundred years before St. Basil’s time,23 Roman soldiers stationed on the Danube kept the “festival of Kronos” by drawing lots for a king. When he had been selected, they clothed him “in royal attire” to represent Kronos-Saturn, feasted and honoured him as a king for thirty days, and then forced him to commit suicide.24 From such evidence we conclude that the Saturnalia and its “kings” were familiar to the ancestors of the Greeks who eat the basilopitta today.

Summing up, therefore, we note that St. Basil’s connection with the basilopitta does not bear analysis, that the resemblances between the basilopitta and the gâteau des Rois are too numerous to be merely fortuitous, that the the gâteau des Rois is a characteristic feature of the popular celebration of the Twelve Days, that the Twelve Days are identified by modern scholars with the Saturnalia, and that the Saturnalia were anciently equated to the Kronia. Consequently, with some confidence we identify the Basil of the basilopitta with the basileus, the “king” of the Saturnalia. To go even farther and identify him with King Kronos himself is tempting, but our knowledge of that shadow-king is too slight for us to venture so far.

Even against the identification with the “king” of the Saturnalia something may be said. It is unfortunate, for instance, that no early record either of the basileus or of the basilopitta exists, though the widespread observance of the ceremony of eating the basilopitta indicates its ancient origin…

Rosca de reyes
In keeping with the country’s Catholic traditions, Mexican sweet bread (Rosca de Reyes) is baked with a coin or charm hidden in the dough. When the bread is served, whoever gets the slice with the coin or charm is said to be blessed with good luck for the New Year.

NOTES

1 Published by Koukoules in the periodical Ξενοφάνης, vol. iv., pp. 155 et seq., and republished by Mr. M. D. Volonakis in his  Ιστορία του εορτασμού της πρώτης του έτους, (Athens, 1917), pp. 26-7. I am indebted to Mr. Volonakis for both these references.

2 Migne, Patrologiae Graecae, vol. xxix., pp. cccii-iv. : W. R. Halliday in (Liverpool) Annals of Archaeology, vol. vii., pp. 91-3.

3 Cf. above, p. 150.

4 Migne, loc. cit., p. ccciii. n. 40; Halliday, loc. cit., p. 97.

5 Migne, loc. cit., pp. cccii-iii.

6 See F. W. Hasluck, Letters on Religion and Folklore, p. 215.

7  Σαράντα Γλυκίσματα

8 F. W. Hasluck, Christianity and Islam, pp. 391-402.

They have been collected and exhaustively discussed by Professor Halliday in the Annual of the British School at Athens, vol. xx. (1913-4), pp. 32-58.

10 Carnoy and Nicolaides, op. cit., p. 191; Levides (a native of Caesarea), op. cit., p. 56.

11 Texier, Asie Mineure, vol. ii., p. 61 ; Carnoy and Nicolaides, loc. cit.; Levides, loc. cit.

12 Loc. cit.; cf. Rizos, op. cit., p. 138.

13 Christmas cake, from the root chest (part). The preparation of this bread may be accompanied by various rules and rituals. A coin is often put into the dough during the kneading; other small objects may also be inserted. At the beginning of Christmas dinner, the česnica is rotated three times counter-clockwise, before being broken among the family members. The person who finds the coin in his piece of the bread will supposedly be exceptionally lucky in the coming year. The česnica was used in folk magic for divining or influencing the amount of crops.

The česnica may be used for divination in some regions. In Bosnia, when the dough is shaped and ready for baking, a number of notches are cut in the upper surface of it, and seeds of various crops are placed into the notches. The more a notch has risen when the česnica is baked, the more productive the crop whose seed is in it will be in the following year. In Jadar, western Serbia, the number of embers of the badnjak equal to the sum of grain and livestock sorts grown by the family are taken out of the fire and placed on the česnica. Each of the sorts is associated with its own ember on that loaf. The sort whose ember retains its glow longer than the others should be the most productive in the coming year.  To ensure an abundance of grain, some people place a bowl filled with grain on the česnica.

In 19th-century Herzegovina, two men would rotate the česnica between themselves, one of them asking, “Am I protruding [from behind the česnica]?” and the other responding, “You are, a little.” The first man would then say, “Now a little, and next year not even a little.” The purpose of this conversation was to invoke an abundance of grain in the coming year. A similar practice was recorded in the 12th century among West Slavs on the island of Rugia in the Baltic Sea. Those Slavs were adherents of the cult of Svantovit, and had a big temple dedicated to that god at Cape ArkonaSaxo Grammaticus described, in the Book XIV of his Gesta Danorum, the festival of Svantovit which was held annually after harvest in front of that temple. In one of the rituals, a round loaf of bread covered with honey, with the diameter equal to a man’s height, was held vertically in front of the statue of Svantovit. The priest of the temple went behind the loaf, before asking the gathered people whether they saw him. After they responded that they did, the priest expressed the wish that next year they would not see him. The aim of the ritual was to ensure a rich harvest of grain in the following year.

14 In the languages of the Near East the letters p and b are frequently interchanged.

15 B. Schmidt, op. cit., p. 62 : E. A. Tsitselis, loc. cit., pp. 420-I, followed by M. Hamilton, Greek Saints, p. I86. In Athens and generally in Old Greece, as Mr. D. P. Petrocochino informs me, a Christmas cake called χριστόψωμο is eaten, but it does not contain a coin.

16 Frazer, The Scapegoat, p. 351.

17 The references are collected in Roscher’s Lexikon, s.v. Kronos, column 1458.

18 Τύραννος (Ol. ii. 24)

19 Convivalia, 317 D.

20 Βασίλη (Roscher, Lexikon, column 1518).

21 Βασίλαι (Pausanias, vi., 20, I, and the inscription published by Roehl, Inscrr. Gr. Ant. (Berlin, 1882), No. 112, p. 39). See also Frazer, The Scapegoat, p. 352, and n. i, and The Golden Bough (900oo), vol. iii., p. 148, and L. R. Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, vol. i., p. 27. Farnell considers (op. cit., vol. i., p. 30) that the cult of Kronos was much wider than our scanty records indicate.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s