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Our Greek “Santa” comes on Jan 1 with the New Year’s cake tradition

Chubby, with a red uniform, and a shaky laugh, that’s how our children have learned that Santa Claus is. But our “Santa”, the Greek Orthodox Agios Vassilis, is different and comes with his presents in the night of January 1.

Our “Santa” comes from Caesaria in central Asia Minor where he was a Bishop during his lifetime. He is ascetically thin, with dark skin and a black beard. He is dressed like a Byzantine wanderer with a cap and sandals and is holding a walking stock in his hand.

Τhe Greek Santa does not arrive in a sleigh pulled by deer and coming down the chimney bringing gifts to the little children. That’s the European Santa who has been also adopted in Greece since the 1950-1960.

Αs far as I can recall as a child growing up in Greece, Aγιος Βασιλης, just came to our homes like a ghost or something – we did not have a fire place, anyway – and just put his presents under the Christmas tree. I think I never even asked how he managed to enter our living groom with all windows and doors closed. Main thing was: his presents were there.

picture via source

According to tradition, our Greek Santa would start his tour on foot right after Christmas, always kind and smiling and would chat with the people he met.

Folklore professor Dimitris Loukatos write in his book “Christmas and Holidays”:

“Agios Vassilis did not carry a basket on his back or a sack loaded with gifts. What he brought to the people was more symbolic: good luck in particular and his priestly blessing. The only somewhat concrete thing was his ‘magic’ walking stock, whence branches and partridges miraculously sprouted or came to life, symbols of the corresponding gifts, which he could distribute to his favored ones”.

The case of this saint is curious, Loukakos noted. Despite his superior position in Orthodoxy, in the perception of the people he remained as a human saint who lives and walks among us. Like a visitor who brings luck. The strange and contradictory thing is that when he was alive, he never ceased to speak and write against astrology, omens, superstitions and dream-mongering. In other words, everything that happens on the day we celebrate him on January 1 with the custom of the New Year’s cake and the lucky coin.

Santa Claus vs Agios Vassilis

Basil of Caesarea.jpg

For Orthodox Christians, Agios Vassilis, Saint Basil or Basil the Great, devoted almost his entire life to helping fellow human beings and who is considered in world history as the originator and first creator of organized charity. According to tradition,

St. Basil died on December 31, 378. On January 1, 379, the day of his funeral, and preserving the tradition, it was considered to bring blessing and good luck in the new year.

In addition, the main character of the Greek New Year’s carols is Agios Vassilis. the carols remind to people charity works of St Basil urging them to repeat it for the benefit of the children singing them.

In the West the face of Santa Claus has been identified with the story of Saint Nicholas who was famous for his generosity. In the story of Saint Nicholas,  northern folks have added elements of their own traditions (reindeer, sleigh, North Star, big socks, etc.), a culture that accompanies him to this day and created the current figure of Santa Claus with all his characteristics.

Ο Άγιος των παιχνιδιών: Μέγας Βασίλειος! | Nextdeal

According to reports, Greeks seem to have ‘adopted’ the figure of Santa Claus as Agios Vassilis in the 1950s-1960s, mainly in the urban population, by the Greek immigrants who introduced the “Western” Santa Claus with their greeting cards.

Where did the custom of Vassilopita come from?

Right after the New Year arrives or at the New year’s breakfast, Greeks cut the Vassilopita, a cake bearing the name of the Saint. A coin is hidden in the dough and whoever finds is considered to have luck through out the year.

Vasilopita - The Story Behind the Greek New Year's Cake ...

The custom comes from the depths of the centuries and is directly linked to Agios Vassilis..

When Saint Basil was Bishop in Caesarea, the then Prefect of Cappadocia went with harsh dispositions to collect taxes. The frightened inhabitants asked their the Bishop to protect them.

According to the legacy, the Bishop urged them all to bring their most valuable items. They collected many gifts and went out with the Bishop to meet the Prefect.

The appearance and persuasion of the Saint overwhelmed the Prefect, who did not want to take the gifts in the end.

They went back to their homes happy and the Saint tried to distribute the valuable items. But the separation was difficult, because many had offered many similar jewels and coins.

Then, the Bishop ordered them to make pies on Saturday afternoon and put an item inside each one.

The next day he distributed the pies to them and as if by a miracle each of them found in the pie that he took what he had offered…

with information from daily tanea.gr

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4 comments

  1. Have a great 2023 and thank you for all your hard work again this year.

  2. Wish you, KTG, all the best för 2023!
    Happy New Year and I hope you will continue to keep us foreiners updated with greek society and news!
    Thank you for the hard work during this gruelsome year 2022! Hope 2023 will be a better year för all of us!!