In Orthodoxy there will always be a balance of both universal and local customs, usually some kind of variation or addition to the already-established tradition in place. Some parishes only use one variation of kolyva for their memorial services. Some churches will process either with only children or the entire church for the Triumph of Orthodoxy. In these examples churches are keeping in line with the tradition handed down to us, and also personalizing it. This year we held our Vasilopita cutting service on the first Sunday of the January, and I know I cut it differently than the parish has in the past. I want to explain how the service has been taught to me but first,
What is the Vasilopita service anyway?
We cut the special ‘pita’ in honor of St. Basil, bishop of Caesarea, who is an incredible champion of our Faith and was a powerhouse philanthropist while he was alive. He contributed greatly to monasticism, actively tried to rehabilitate thieves and prostitutes, and gave unceasingly to the poor. He created so much activity through his philanthropy and outreach, that the actual city of Caesarea moved and grew around his compound. We’re praying for good health and blessings in this life for the upcoming year.
So, we call our special pita Vasilopita, or Basil Bread, though it sounds funny in English. It can be a sweet bread like our artoklasia, or a spiced cake. There are a couple of stories about how we got to putting a coin in our bread, but a very plausible one is that St. Basil would put money into loaves of bread, and then give that bread to the poor, so as to not embarrass someone by giving the alms. Pretty beautiful, I think.
So, Cutting the Vasilopita
When doing Vasilopita, whether in the Church or the home, the cuts always go in this order:
- Christ (The reason why we’re doing any of this.)
- The Theotokos (In honor of Christ’s mother, who brought Salvation into the world.)
- St. Basil (The reason we have this particular service.)
- The poor (To honor St. Basil’s mission, and also our own duty as Christians.)
From here, in the Church setting, it begins to vary a little, though it generally starts at the ruling hierarch and moves down to the clergy positions, and into the ministries of the Church. Some parishes will also cut special slices for the oldest and youngest person in the parish, the longest married couple, the person who cooks so much for the parish he or she seems to have a chain attached to their ankle and the Church kitchen. It can get pretty fun! So for our event, after the first four, we went on to cut a piece for His Eminence Savas, one for the Archons (because we had Archons visiting with us), our chanter, our νεωκόρος, George, then the parish council, Philoptochos, Sunday school, and AHEPA. Then, everyone gets a slice! So, everyone still gets a special blessing through being present at the service and eating the blessed bread.