Vasilopita is a New Year’s Day bread or cake in Greece and many other areas in eastern Europe, which contains a hidden coin that is believed to bring luck to the one who obtains the coin. It is associated with Sainr Basil’s day. (Saint Basil’s Feast Day is observed on January 1, the beginning of the New Year and the Epiphany season known as the Vasilopita Observance) January 1, in most of Greece, but in some regions, the traditions surrounding a cake with a hidden coin are associated with Epiphany or Christmas The dough in which the coin is placed varies immensely depending on personal preference and location/region. In some families, instead of dough, it is made from a custard base. The pie is known as Chronópita, meaning New Year’s Pie.
On New Year’s Day families cut the vasilopita to bless the house and bring good luck for the new year. This is usually done at the midnight of New Year’s Eve. A coin is hidden in the bread by slipping it into the dough before baking. At midnight the sign of the cross is etched with a knife across the cake. 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.
In older times, the coin often was a valuable one, such as a gold sovereign. As time went on, the tradition of a costly coin (in most cases) changed. In more modern times, a gift, money or prize is given to the coin recipient. Many private or public institutions, such as societies, clubs, workplaces, companies, etc., cut their vasilopita on New Year’s Day and the beginning of the Great Lent, in celebrations that range from impromptu potluck gatherings to formal receptions or balls.
How did this tradition start you may ask? In popular belief, vasilopita is associated with a legend of Basil of Caesarea. According to one story, Basil called on the Roman citizens of Caesarea to raise a ransom payment to stop the enemy forces from surrounding the city, cutting off essential supplies with the aim of compelling the surrender of those inside. Each individual of the city gave what they had in gold and jewelry. When the ransom was raised, the adversary was so embarrassed by the people’s cooperation that he called off the siege without taking a thing. Basil was then tasked with returning the unpaid ransom, but had no way of knowing which items belonged to which family, so he baked all of the jewelry into loaves of bread and distributed the loaves around the city, and by a miracle each citizen received their exact share.