Thanasi the baker wiped his hands on his apron and, like a stone carving of a minor deity in his shrine to bread waited for me, the unworthy supplicant, to utter my request.
“I need a Vasilopita,” I chimed, hoping my tone might brighten the moment. “Actually two. Any left?”
He motioned to a table by the door piled with white cake boxes. “Ekei” he said flatly as though I should have known that the St. Basil’s cakes, only made once a year to celebrate the New Year, were displayed near the front of the store. At least he remembered, after ten years as a customer, that I was also Greek.
It was a good thing that his baked goods are so delicious. He certainly wasn’t going to generate repeat business based on his sunny disposition. And I for one am suspicious of a baker as rail thin as he.
But his Vasilopita cakes are divine. Always. The treat for this New Year’s Day was to be no exception. If you’ve never had one, it is essentially a coffee cake, although some family recipes call for more of a sweet bread. This one was light and delicately flavored with orange peel and a hint of baking spices that I couldn’t quite identify. The top was covered in confectioners’ sugar and decorated with piped icing showing the year.
It tradition in Greece, and in other countries with Orthodox Christian communities, to serve this on January 1st which is when the memory of St. Basil is commemorated. He was a Christian bishop who lived in the fourth century in Cappadocia, a region in Asia Minor that is now part of modern day Turkey.
St. Basil, Άγιος Βασίλειος, also is venerated as a saint in the Catholic faith. He was a learned teacher and a fervent defender of the poor. Lore has it that once a city in his region was surrounded by an enemy army demanding a ransom or else they would attack. Even the poorest donated what little they had even if it meant contributing family heirlooms. When he learned of this the army commander was humbled by the selflessness of the people. He returned the wooden chest full of coins and gold rings to the city and departed.
As spiritual leader, St. Basil was asked to decide how to return the money and belongings to their rightful owners. After much prayer Basil instructed that the coins and jewelry should be baked into loaves of bread which he blessed. The loaves were handed out, one to each family. Miraculously each contained the very items that they had donated.
I brought the Vasilopita home for the traditional cutting of our cake with a few friends that joined Helen and I on New Year’s Day. Every Vasilopita cake contains a single coin baked into it. As we gathered around the kitchen I took a knife and made the sign of the cross over it and offered a few words of prayer and hopes for a healthy new year as my father had always done on this day. Then cut the first pieces for Christ, the Theotokos and our home and set them aside. Then, carefully cutting more, we handed out slices to everyone who hoped they would be the lucky one to get the coin and be considered to be especially blessed with good fortune in the year to come.
I reflected on the symbolism of the tradition as each of our guests probed their portion with a fork. Everyone wanted the coin, the money, the prize that would set them apart as special. But each of them, I realized, already held the real gift in their hands and in their hearts. The “daily bread” -- the gift of each new day that we receive when we open our eyes every morning. We are searching for something that we have already been given. It is in our hands if we can only recognize it. The prize isn’t the coin. And it isn’t only in one piece of the bread, it is in everybody’s. Everyday.
There was more cake than guests in our little ceremony. And so in the end no one found the coin in their slice. So no one was deemed to be more fortunate than anyone else. I found that appropriate. We were all blessed equally. We each had the day and the promise of a new year.
I wish you all a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year. May you have the good fortune to find your coin every day in 2019.
I have a variety of interests and enjoy sharing my reflections on them here.