Greek Traditions for New Year’s Day [PHIL-OSOPHY]
If you've never investigated some of the traditions and customs of different countries around the world, you're missing out on some curious and enthralling lore and wisdom.
I'm fortunate enough to have grown up in a Greek household, where we spoke Greek as much as possible. When I'd answer in English, my grandmother, YiaYia, or my dad and mom would give me an earful for not replying in Greek. But if not for their arm-twisting back then, I wouldn't have this knowledge today.
So, shall we visit Santorini for the New Year? The first thing you'll catch sight of are the chalk-white homes in the villages with brilliant blue painted domes and roofs. The white is a reflector of sunlight and keeps the homes cooler and the blue, because not only is it the other color of the flag, but it was plentiful and cheap for the people.
Also, much like the rules of historical societies here that dictate what colors can be used on historic homes, the blue and white colors became mandatory when a military government came into power in 1967, and today it's one major identity of Greece.
New Year's Day is a big festive day, much like Christmas is here, only the Greeks consider St. Basil to be much like what we consider as Santa Claus. That's the day children get gifts and traditional foods fill the table. For this article, I'm going to focus on one in particular, called Vasilopita, a large, sweet, yeasted, egg bread-like cake, scented with orange, and made just for this day, with a silver or gold coin baked inside it.
On New Year's Day, it's the custom for the eldest member of the household to make the sign of the cross on top of the loaf before slicing the bread into various pieces. One slice is reserved for Jesus, another for the Virgin Mary, a third for St. Basil, and one each for the village church, the house and for the food deprived. The rest of the loaf is cut and distributed, starting with the eldest to the youngest. The slices kept aside for Jesus, Mary, St. Basil, church, house and poor are given to visitors or to the needy. Of course, whoever gets the coin is said to have good fortune in the new year.
But what most people are not aware of is that this tradition began in ancient times, when St. Basil urged the citizens of Cesarea to raise coins and jewelry to stop a face-off. When the liberation money was turned over to the opposition, the foes felt shamed by the generosity of the people, and the siege was rescinded. St. Basil attempted to return the valuables to every Cesarean but had no way of determining who donated what, so he decided, as a solution, he'd bake the coins and jewels into many loaves and gave it all back to the people in that way.
It's interesting how and why some customs came about in the first place.
The Paleologos family wishes you and your family a healthy and prosperous New Year.
Phil Paleologos is the host of The Phil Paleologos Show on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard weekdays from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PhilPaleologos. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.