Nothing spells New Years in a Greek household like the famed vasilopita. The simple sponge cake might not be as impressive as some other famous Greek cakes, but its significance makes up for it.
The tradition of vasilopita is associated with a legend of Saint Basil. According to the legend, St. Basil called on the citizens of Caesarea to raise a ransom payment to stop the siege of the city. Each member of the city gave whatever they had in gold and jewelery and when the ransom was raised, the enemy was so embarrassed by the act that he called off the siege without collecting payment. St. Basil was then tasked with returning the unpaid ransom, but had no way to know which items belonged to which family. So he baked all of the jewelery into loaves of bread and distributed the loaves to the city. By a miracle each citizen received their exact share, the legend goes.
Now it’s all about the flouri.
As modern tradition has it, the luckiest person will be the one that gets the coin in their piece of vasilopita. A coin wrapped in aluminum foil gets popped into the cake mix before it’s baked. A family member then gets the honour of cutting the cake in pieces, all devoted to someone or something of importance. Normally cut at midnight, the cake’s aim is to bless the house and bring good luck for the New Year. A piece of cake is sliced for each member of the family and any visitors present at the time, by order of age from eldest to youngest. Slices are also cut for various symbolic people or groups, depending on local and family tradition. They may include the Lord, St. Basil and other saints, the poor, the household, or the Kallikantzaroi (Christmas goblins). The piece that reveals the coin means that person or thing will get good luck all throughout the year. Everyone’s competitive nature comes out with the cutting of the cake.
Luck is actually a big part of New Years for Greeks.
Here are some other traditions Greeks bring out at New Years:
Greeks start off the New Year off with gambling. They consider New Year’s Eve as lucky, so everyone collectively tries to beat the odds. New Year’s is the prime time for gambling all around Greece, and you’ll see kafenia packed with people playing card games or rolling dice. It’s such a big thing that there is a national lottery on New Year’s Day, with a jackpot of about 10 million Euros.
Surprisingly, in Greece it is the custom to exchange gifts on the New Year instead of Christmas. Children sadly have to wait a couple more days for their presents. The presents are delivered by Saint Basil (Agios Vasilis), another connection to the saint, who is the Greek Santa Claus.
Many Greeks pay particular attention to the first person to enter the house in the New Year. The pothariko as it’s called sees a close friend, relative or child chosen to be the first one to enter the house. Normally with the right foot, and sometimes carrying a candle, the specially picked person gets to bless the house and receives extra good luck that year.
The pomegranate is a New Year’s symbol for Greeks, but a world wide symbol of life and good luck. The ancient Greeks would break a pomegranate on the front porch when they moved into a new house. Now Greeks break a pomegranate on the front door and let the red seeds fall around the house to symbolize wealth in the New Year. The onion also makes an appearance at the front door because it symbolizes good luck, protection and good health all throughout the year. Some people also turn the taps on at midnight, to symbolize the hope that good luck will flow just as much as the flowing water.
New Year’s also get’s the children involved, as they go from house to house singing carols. In return, they get rewarded with money or sweets. Traditionally, money or sweets on New Years was the only gift given to children during the festive season.
And of course, New Years is never complete without fireworks. All over Greece the night sky lights up, none more so than Athens. Let’s hope this year budget cuts won’t affect the fireworks show.