Most people around the world equate Santa Claus with Saint Nicholas. But what about Saint Basil bearing gifts?
Popular legend proclaims that the original Santa Claus was Saint Nicholas, who we know to have been born in Turkey in the 4th century. He was very pious from an early age, devoting his life to Christianity. He became widely known for his generosity for the poor. The Romans scorned him for these acts, for which he was imprisoned and tortured. When Constantine became emperor of Rome, he allowed Nicholas to go free. Constantine became a Christian and convened the Council of Nicaea in 325. Nicholas was a delegate to the council. He is especially noted for his love of children and for his generosity. He is the patron saint of sailors, Sicily, Greece, and Russia. He is also, of course, the patron saint of children. This is why so many equate him with Santa Claus.
The Dutch are credited with keeping the legend of Saint Nicholas alive. In 16th century Holland, Dutch children would place their wooden shoes by the hearth in hopes that they would be filled with a treat. (Perhaps the precursor to hanging Christmas stockings?) The Dutch spelled Saint Nicholas as Sint Nikolaas, which became corrupted to Sinterklaas, and finally, in Anglican, to Santa Claus. In 1822, Clement C. Moore composed his famous poem, “A Visit from St. Nick,” which was later published as “T’was The Night Before Christmas.” Moore is credited with creating the modern image of Santa Claus as a jolly fat man in a red suit.
So where does Saint Basil come in?
The Greeks associate gift giving with Saint Basil. Saint Basil is fondly remembered for his kindness and generosity to the sick and the poor, especially to children. Because his feast day is celebrated on January 1, it is on this day that Greeks traditionally exchange gifts.
Saint Basil was born in 330 AD in Caesaria, in Asia Minor. He was one of six children, who all, incidentally, became saints of the church. His family, which all became bishops, priests and nuns, was said to be the greatest Christian family of the 4th century. He studied in Constantinople and Athens and was one of the greatest writers and speakers of the Orthodox Church. Though revered in all of Orthodox Christendom, he chose to return to his hometown, and was ordained Bishop of Caesaria in 370 AD.
Saint Basil composed rules for monastic life, which are still in practice today. He prepared a Divine Liturgy, which now is celebrated only 10 times a year, including: during the Lenten period, Christmas Eve, and on January 1, the anniversary of his passing. He was the first bishop to establish orphanages and homes for the elderly.
Few were ever bestowed the title, “Great.” Basil was given this title because he conquered the hearts and souls of men for Jesus Christ. He dedicated his life and teachings to Christ. He passed away on January 1, 379 AD, at the age of 49.
St. Basil as the real bearer of gifts
The blog Lessons from a Monastery, tells us that:
“In Greece St. Basil’s feast day coincides with the traditional day of gift-giving. Now, thanks to globalism, this has transferred to Christmas day in most Greek homes). Hence the confusion of thinking Santa Claus is ‘Agios Basilis,’ St. Basil. Greeks have, unfortunately, embraced modern Santa Claus, but think of him as a modern version of St. Basil, instead of a modern version of St. Nicolas. So, two saints are dishonoured by modern, commercial Santa Claus. In an attempt to encourage children (and adults) to remember the true likeness of St. Basil, ie. not as an overweight “Coke-a-Cola” Santa Claus, Uncut Mountain Supply put out this icon.”
Vasilopita Story 1
Depending on the text consulted, the remainder of the story differs. According to the book, Vassilopita: The Story of St. Basil and the New Year’s Cake, by Anna Marini and translated and adapted by Father Stavros Kofinas, Julian the Apostate, emperor of the Easter Roman Empire, also known as Byzantium, was to pass through Caesaria on the way to Persia. Basil and the people of the district received him. Incidentally, Julian and Basil had been schoolmates in Athens. It was customary for the emperor to demand gifts worthy of his royalty. Basil had nothing of value. He offered three loaves of bread made with barley, which greatly insulted Julian. He ordered his servants to cut blades of grass and present them to Basil as a gift. Basil was insulted, and he was sure to point it out.
“Oh Emperor!” said Basil. “We offered you gifts from among the things we eat, just as you requested. As is fitting, your majesty has repaid us with gifts from among the things that he eats.”
Julian was furious, and he swore, that upon his return, he’d burn the city and take the people of the district as his prisoners. He would severely punish Basil for this act.
Basil returned to the city and told the people of the impending threat. He advised his people to gather their valuables in one place, and when the emperor neared, they’d throw armfuls of these goods at him. Since the emperor was greedy and loved money, Basil was convinced the possessions would distract him and he’d neglect to carry out his threat.
The people followed Basil’s decree. They gathered all their gold, silver and precious stones and placed them in the sacristy. He wrote the name of the owner on each piece. When they learned of the emperor’s visit, Basil advised everyone to fast for three days. Together, they climbed Mount Didymos, and met in a church at the very top, which was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. They prayed to Mary, and asked her to make the emperor change his mind. Basil witnessed the holy army of angels surround the mountain. From the throne of the Virgin, he heard her say, “Send for Saint Merkourios.”
Merkourios appeared clad in armor, and Mary ordered him to destroy the emperor. She then handed Basil a book, describing the creation of the world. At the beginning, the word “tell” was inscribed, and at the end, was written, “the end.” After having this vision, Basil returned to the city and went to the church of Saint Merkourios. The martyr’s relics, which were kept there, were missing. Basil went back up the mountain to reassure the people, and told them, that Julian had no longer existed. He told everyone what had happened, and for their gratitude, the people gave all their possessions to God who had saved them. Basil praised them, and returned to them one-third of their possessions. With the rest of the money, he built a hospital, a home for the elderly, a hostel and an orphanage.
Though this story has passed on, according to Father Kofinas, he stated in the book that a second version of the story developed, which explained the story of the Vasilopita.
Other texts, as well as folk legend tell of a cruel nobleman from Cappadocia (some say Emperor Valens) went to Basil and demanded all the city’s treasures, or he’d destroy the city. The people of the district brought Basil all of their gold jewelry. The bishop prayed through the night for the city to be saved. In the morning, this nobleman arrived and his soldiers surrounded the city. The nobleman went to the church and found Basil waiting for him outside. He was pale and weak from fasting. The nobleman demanded the city’s wealth. Basil explained that the city’s wealth was the poor and hungry people, who suffered at the hands of the rich. The nobleman threatened Basil. He said he’d take all of Basil’s possessions. “If you think you have found riches here,” Basil told him, “look all you want. All I have is the robe I am wearing.”
The nobleman threatened to put him in chains and then kill him. Basil basically told him to go ahead, so then he’d return to his “homeland in heaven.” Enraged, the nobleman ordered an attack of the city. “Your greediness will destroy you,” Basil said.
Basil then showed him a large chest that contained the gold. Before the nobleman could see what was inside, a horseman, bathed in radiant light, rode up with soldiers. The nobleman and his army vanished and never returned. The horseman is said to have been Saint Merkourios. All praised God.
He knew he had to return the possessions to the people, however, he feared that greed would take them over and they would try to claim the gold of others as well. He prayed and prayed, and came up with a solution. He called his helpers to bake small loaves of bread, and to put a few pieces of gold inside each loaf. He then distributed them to the faithful, and when the loaves were cut, each family found their valuables. In remembrance of this event, we bake bread on New Year’s Day and include a coin or piece of jewelry inside.
Since we commemorate Saint Basil on January 1, it is that day that Greeks typically exchange gifts, rather than Christmas Day.
New Year’s Tradition
Among the platters of sweets, plus dried fruits and nuts, the New Year’s table always includes Vasilopita. This bread is placed in the center of the table to honor Saint Basil the Great. The cake is dedicated to him and also referred to as “royal bread.”
All the guests are to gather around the table. The head of the household will cross himself, and pray to God to bless the food and drink present. He then lifts the Vasilopita, kissed it, and may pass it around for everyone else to kiss it as well. When the bread returns to him, using a knife, he makes the sign of the cross over the bread. The cake is cut into pieces. Some say, the first cut is for Christ, the second for Saint Basil, one for the poor (usually the largest piece), the next for anyone named Vasilios or Vasiliki, who on this day celebrate their feast day, and then the head of the household, then for every member of the household and every guest.
The bread has a special surprise inside. The person who receives the piece with a coin or piece of jewelry in it, is said to receive many blessings throughout the year.
Many families cut the bread just prior to midnight, and then shut off the lights and wish everyone Happy New Year, to signify the dawn of the New Year. Others observe this tradition on New Year’s Day.
New Year’s Day, as the beginning of the year, is a day of renewal. In some areas, on this day, priests bless homes and their inhabitants. A recipe for Vasilopita is included in this issue.
Hopefully you will receive the lucky coin this year, and have a year full of blessings! Happy New Year!
Adopting Western Tradition
Over the last 15 years or so, the Greeks in Greece have been adopting Christmas customs from the West. It is common these days, to see Santa Claus milling around as well as for children to have a photo with Santa. For some, the Christmas tree has also entered the home, and presents are underneath the tree. While some wait for New Year’s Day, as the traditional day of exchange, others are now opening their presents on Christmas as well. Nonetheless, the tradition of the Vasilopita and the commemoration of Saint Basil Day remain steadfast.
Buy a special commemorative Vasilopita coin on Amazon.
This article was originally written and published in 2006.