Many things have changed over the years, the Christmas tree came with Otto from Bavaria as did the turkey in the mid 1800 to name at least two, but one thing has never changed for over 1500 years. Do we all know that Greek tradition has it that presents are given out by Saint Basil (Αγιος Βασίλης) or Basil the Great on New Year’s Day in Greece with out any exception?
If we look into the life of this great man all becomes clear. He was the son of a very wealthy and well educated family of Caesaria, Cappadocia, where he was born in 330 AD. He became a theologian after extensive studies in Caesaria, Constantinople and in Athens and many travels.
Eventually he distributed all his personal wealth among the poor and also build Basiliad (at the time considered one of the wonders of the world) outside Caesarea consisting of a poorhouse, hospice and a hospital, which was around long after his death and it was the church elders that came after him that named it it after Basil.
Legend tells us that he was responsible for the Vasilopita and the coin in the center, to this day cut and distributed on the day of Agios Vasilis, New Years Day.
During the years that he was Bishop of Caesaria a powerful prefect of the area demanded from Basil that all of Caesaria’s citizens hand over their personal treasures to him. I guess this was equivalent to collecting excessive taxes by today’s standards. With his generals and army the prefect entered the city while Basil was in prayer in his church. Basil when faced with the General and the army told them that among the population poverty and hunger reigned and had nothing of value to hand over. Hearing this the general threatened to banish Basil from the city and even kill him. The people of the city wanting to save Basil gathered all their precious treasures and handed it over to him.
In the mean time the general became so angry that he ordered his army to attack the people of the city therefore Basil was ready to hand over the treasure, the legend now tells us as the general was about to put his hands on the treasure when a miracle occurred. A flash appeared and a rider appeared with his army who turned out to be St Mercourios with his angels and in minutes the bad general withdrew. Thus the town was saved, but this created a dilemma, Basil had to distribute all the treasure back to the people and the distribution had to be fair and as it was difficult to find the rightful owners of each item, so he ordered his deacons to bake small breads and in the center of each bread place a piece of gold from the loot. When these breads were ready he distributed them among the people as a blessing and every household received an equal amount of treasure.
Among all this mythology there are true historical events which took place to end up as the myths and legends that we read about today. We know that St Mercourio was a a great general with a large army who was a Christian convert prior to St Basil. We also know that there was a historical instance that treasure was demanded as the state and the church were at odds during those early Christian times.
Up until very recent times a gold sovereign was placed in the center of the bread till it became very commercialised and now any old coin will do hence making it only symbolic and with no monetary value.