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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year & Vasilopita

When I was young, my sister and I would go to Danforth Avenue (Toronto's Greek town) on the morning of New Year's Eve and sing the "Kalanta" at the doorways of all the Greek owned businesses on the street. The shopkeepers would reward us with money and good wishes for a lucky and happy New Year. This custom goes back a couple millenia and is an outgrowth of ancient pagan celebrations at the beginning of each calendar month, signifying the start of the new moon cycle. Indeed, the name "Kalanta" is derived from the ancient Roman (Latin) word "Calends". Like many other pagan customs, the "Kalanta" were later subsumed within the Byzantine Christian traditions which replaced the old ways, and were transmitted right down to our present day as folk customs.

A slice of Vasilopita

On New Year's Day, wherever they may happen to live, Greeks come together with their families and friends for the traditional cutting of the Vasilopita (King's Cake). The event centres around the cake itself, for which there are a number of regional recipe variations ranging from a sweet bread, to a cake, to a phyllo-based pita-style version; though the traditional recipe was standardized by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian sometime in the 6th Century and is best characterized as a sweet bread, almost a cake. The ritual of cutting the Vasilopita has nothing to do with the edible constituent ingredients of the Vasilopita itself. Instead, the focus is on 1) the inedible ingredient, usually only one coin, and 2) the invisible ingredient: the love of family, friends, and community, which binds and brings together all those who take part in the Vasilopita tradition by accepting a piece of the cake when it is cut. 

First, the coin. The coin is called a 'flouri' [pronounced FLOO-REE, remember to roll the 'R']. The flouri is added to the dough and baked right into the Vasilopita, and upon its cutting, one of the recipients of its pieces will find the flouri in their portion. The fortunate soul who so finds the coin is then hailed as the "luckiest" individual for the next 364 days by the gathered company.

Now, historically speaking, the baking of coins into breads and cakes which were holy offerings for holiday occasions was not invented by Saint Basil (also known as "Basil the Great") who purportedly lends his name to the Vasilopita -the "Vasil" part. In point of fact, the ancient pre-Christian Greeks and Romans were both familiar with this peculiar patisserie practice and many of their festivals included such tokens and the name likely refers to "Vasil" as 'King' which is the original meaning of the word itself. 

Seventeen centuries ago, Basil was appointed as Christian bishop (in Greek, a 'despot') of a place called Caesarea that is the modern-day city of Kayseri in Turkey. He was a contemporary of the Emperor Julian, who was known as 'the Apostate' for his impracticable mission to resurrect a dying paganism in the Roman Empire. When said Emperor went forth on an ultimately unsuccessful mission to conquer the Sassanid Empire (a persistent revival element of the ancient Persian Empire), his army made his way through the vicinity of Caesarea on their way to Mesopotamia. As wars require financing, he put a special emphasis on squeezing the local provincials with extra tax demands; and he took a special interest in Christian communities.

Basil's regard and care for the poor and underprivileged of Caesarea was legendary and a universally respected trait, one which earned him the devotion and love of his followers, Christian and non-Christian alike. In addition to numerous other works, Basil had commisioned a structure known as the 'Basiliad', a large complex on the outskirts of Caesarea, which included a shelter for the poor along with a hospital. The man himself was renowned for his charity and personal poverty, yet he spared no expense when it came to the care and succour of others, and his ability to provide for their needs drew the attention of Julian's overzealous tax-collectors. So, Bishop Basil was was 'invited' to help fund the Emperor Julian's war effort. Having eschewed personal wealth in providing for his fellows, Basil turned to his followers and friends to raise the money. His followers gave up whatever they could afford to ensure that nothing happened to their beloved bishop and a tidy sum was assembled posthaste.

The Emperor Julian was unsuccessful in his bid to reduce the Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon and he was reportedly killed by one of his own men during a skirmish with enemy forces while his army was withdrawing back to the safety of Roman borders. There is speculation that Julian's death was an assassination ordered by Basil, but there is no direct evidence to support such a claim. Suffice it to say, once the Emperor was dead, Basil was no longer under severe constraint to provide money to the failed war effort. This in turn, left him in a quandary as nobody had kept records of who had donated what amount to the sum which had been collected in his name, and he now desired to return the money to his community. Thus, according to the tradition, he fixed on the idea of having equal shares of the money baked into small loaves which he then distributed among them, one for each family. When the loaves were cut, each family discovered a fair share of the total amount that had been originally amassed. It is said that to honour their bishop, his followers continued and passed on the practice of a yearly Vasilopita complete with a lucky coin, and the practice is still perpetuated almost 1700 years later.

In this tradition, no mention is made of the original pagan practice of the King's Cake, where a bean was baked into the cake. This is hardly surprising as many pagan, pre-Christian practices were subsumed within Christianity over the course of its history. Suffice it to say, this custom of the King's Cake is as old as the hills of Rome and will likely continue for ages to come. Happy New Year!

Happy New Year 2009!

Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand™
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.


Ivy said...

Great post Sam. Kali Chronia. Did you make tsoureki Vassilopita?

Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

Nice customs and scrumptious looking bread! Happy New Year!



N Gaifyllia said...

Happiest of New Year's to you and your growing family! Ygeia kai eytyxia.

JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

Happy New Year, Sam! :)

Maria said...

Kalh xronia! Have a happy and healthy one!

ΕΛΕΝΑ said...

Happy New Year Sam.
I wish you and your family all the best for 2009:))

Katerina ante portas said...

Καλή Χρονιά - Α very happy New Year!
A healthy and a lucky one!

Rena said...

The greatest post, I read this year. I wish you and your family a happy and a prosperous new year. Καλή χρονιά με υγεία, αγάπη και πολλές πολλές ανέμελες στιγμές!

Lore said...

Whish I could find that coin someday :). We have a similar tradition: NYE children gather and go from house to house singing, doing a traditional play and whishing good luck for the new year. They're rewarded with baked goodies and money.
Happy New Year to you and your family Sam!

David Hall said...

Happy New Year Sam!

Loving them videos - all the best for 2009.


Núria said...

Wow Sam, what a post!!! It was like getting a dive in history... even the header of the blog and the letters and the old words... so the word calender and calendario in Spanish also comes from Kalanda?

Happy New Year! Thanks for coming over to my blog and showing me the way to yours :D

Auntie Kat Kat said...

What a fabulous lloking bread I have printed the recipe to try later, at the wekend when I have a minute

Anonymous said...

Happy New Year Sam!!! Lovely bread and lovely post about the customs.

Cakelaw said...

How interesting - thanks for this informative post.

Ricardo said...

Very nice story, we have a similar one with something we call King Cake "Bolo Rei" we also put stuff inside...I love stories like that, makes us realize how important tradition is. :)