St. Basil's Day

St. Basil's Day

Orthodox Christians recognize January 1 as St. Basil's Day. St. Basil (c. 329-379) was born in central Turkey and became famous for his intellectual brilliance, his care of the poor, and the rules he wrote to govern monastic life. Greeks celebrate St. Basil's Day with gift giving, carol singing, a special kind of bread, and a number of customs designed to attract good luck for the coming year.

New Year's Eve

The eve of St. Basil's Day coincides with New Year's Eve. On this long, dark night, relatives and friends gather together to wait for the beginning of the new year. Many people play cards or other games of chance on this evening, as old superstitions link New Year's Eve and Day with fortune-telling. When the clock strikes midnight people wish each other "Chrónia pollá" (many years) or "Kalí chroniá" (good year).

The first person to enter the home after midnight determines the household's luck in the coming year (see also Firstfooting). A strong, healthy person will bring good luck to the house. An icon (a religious image used in prayer and worship) can also bring good luck to a home if it is the first thing to come in from the outside. The person bearing the icon must carry it with outstretched arms, so it enters the house before he or she does. Greek families may observe other superstitions on New Year's Eve, such as opening windows at midnight to release any evil spirits hanging about the house.

Another old New Year's Eve tradition encourages children and adults to go from house to house, singing carols called kalanda (seealso Christmas Carols). One such Greek carol, called "Kalanda Pro-tochronias" honors the start of the new year and the arrival of St. Basil from Caesarea in what is now Turkey. Traditionally these carolers carried with them a paper star, a ship, an orange, an apple, and a green branch from the dogwood tree (see also Christmas Symbols). The singers would bestow a blessing on the families they visited by brushing them on the back with the branch. People also went caroling on New Year's Day, but sometimes added other symbolic acts thought to ensure the household's luck, such as tossing wheat into their backyard or prodding their fire.

St. Basil's Day, New Year's Day

On New Year's Day families gather together to share a loaf of vasiló-pita, "St Basil's bread." (Some families eat the vasilópita after midnight on New Year's Eve.) Bakers insert a coin into this sweet, braided bread (or cake, in some regions of Greece). Whoever gets the coin in their slice of bread will have good luck in the coming year. The bread is often distributed in a ceremonial way. The head of the household makes the sign of the cross over the bread and cuts the first slice, which is "for Christ." The second and third pieces are offered to St. Basil and the Virgin Mary. The next piece goes to the head of the household, and the remaining slices go to the rest of the household, with the eldest receiving theirs first and the youngest last. Some families also designate slices "for the house" and "for the poor." In rural areas farm animals, too, may be included in this custom.

An old Greek legend explains the origins of this custom. It claims that when St. Basil was acting as bishop of Caesarea, he was asked to return a sack of valuable items that had been collected from the people of the city (some say by over-greedy tax collectors, others by thieves). People began to argue over what belonged to whom. St. Basil received divine aid in sorting out these disputes. He asked some women to bake the treasures into a large loaf of bread. When he sliced and distributed the pieces everyone miraculously received only their valuables.

As January 1 is the feast day of St. Basil, special religious services are held in his honor. These services feature the recitation of the Divine Liturgy written by St. Basil. Instead of celebrating birthdays, Greeks celebrate their name-day, that is, the feast day of the saint after whom they were named. January 1 is the name-day for all those named Vasil, Vasili, Vasiliki, Vasilia, Basil, and its English equivalent William.

Traditionally Greek families open their holiday gifts on St. Basil's Day. Indeed, St. Basil, who visits Greek homes on New Year's Eve, is the traditional Christmas season gift bringer. In some places families left out little offerings of special foods - such as a glass of water and pomegranates, sweets, vasilópita, fish, or jellied pork pie - during the night for the saint to refresh himself. In recent years foreign influence has led some people to exchange presents on Christmas Day rather than on St. Basil's Day.

Over the years plenty of superstitions and folk charms have attached themselves to New Year's Day. People still observe some of them for fun. As one's activities on New Year's Day are thought to predict one's preoccupations in the coming year, people try to avoid arguing, sobbing, or losing anything on this day. They seek out happy news and avoid thinking about sad things. Some eat sweets as a means of insuring they will have a "sweet" new year. Some people put on new clothes as a charm guaranteeing that they will be well groomed all year long. When dinnertime comes, tables are set with plenty of food, insuring that the family will enjoy abundant provisions in the months ahead.

Further Reading

Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. The Folklore of World Holidays. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1999. Mikalis, Elena, and Odysseus Mikalis. "Celebrating Christmas and New Year's Day in Traditional Greek Style." Business America 117, 12 (1996): 6. Rouvelas, Marilyn. A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America. Bethesda, Md.: Nea Attiki Press, 1993.

St. Basil's Day

Type of Holiday: Religious (Orthodox Christian)
Date of Observation: January 1
Where Celebrated: Greece
Symbols and Customs: Gift Giving, Good Luck Charms, St. Basil's Water, Ship, Vasilopita


In Greece, January 1 is observed as St. Basil's Day. St. Basil was born in the year C . E . in a region of central Turkey called Cappadocia. He died on January 1, 379. Among Orthodox Christians, he is revered as one of the most important leaders of the early Church. Through his writing and preaching, he made lasting contributions to Christian theology.

Basil came from a distinguished Cappadocian family that lived in the town of Caesarea. One of his uncles was a bishop, and his sister, Macrina, became a nun and later an abbess. Basil received a liberal education and considered following in his father's footsteps by becoming a lawyer. His sister Macrina encouraged him to enter the religious life, however, and he decided to take her advice. Basil's two brothers also pursued careers within the church, later both becoming bishops. Basil was attracted to monastic life, so he set up a little monastery on his family's estate in Pontus. Later he became involved in the theological debates of his day, arguing strongly against a point of view called Arianism. His prominence in these debates inspired him to become a priest and later the bishop of Cappadocia. As bishop, Basil established charitable institutions to help the poor, the sick, and travelers. He maintained his involvements in theological debates and even defied the emperor when he felt that the emperor sided with the wrong point of view.

Today Basil is best known for his writings on the nature of God and on monastic life. Among Orthodox Christians these works have earned him the title of St. Basil the Great. A church hymn honors him as "the revealer of heavenly things." In addition, St. Basil is remembered for the Liturgy of St. Basil, though some scholars question whether or not he is the sole author. In any case, Orthodox churches perform the Liturgy of St. Basil on his feast day, as well as nine other times throughout the church year.

The basis of saint day remembrances-for St. Basil as well as other saints-is found in ancient Roman tradition. On the anniversary of a death, families would share a ritual meal at the grave site of an ancestor. This practice was adopted by Christians who began observing a ritual meal on the death anniversary of ancestors in the faith, especially martyrs. As a result, most Christian saint days are associated with the death of the saint. There are three important exceptions. John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus are honored on their nativities (birthdays). Many who suffered martyrdom are remembered on saint days in the calendars of several Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant sects.

An old legend about St. Basil explains the origin of VASILOPITA (Basil's bread). According to the story, jewelry and gold coins from many of Caesarea's well-to-do families came into Bishop Basil's possession. Some say that he foiled a thief, others that he was charged with returning taxes that had been assessed too heavily. In any case, the people of Caesarea fell to arguing about who owned what. Basil, trusting God to solve this dilemma asked some women to bake the valuables into several loaves of bread. Each claimant received a slice of the bread. They rejoiced as they discovered their own money and jewelry within the slice of bread that they received.


Gift Giving

According to Greek folk tradition, holiday gifts should be opened on St. Basil's Day, rather than on Christmas Day. In fact, St. Basil, rather than Santa Claus or St. Nicholas, is the CHRISTMAS gift bringer in Greece. Some families bring out their gifts on CHRISTMAS EVE , displaying them until St. Basil's Day, when they are opened.

Good Luck Charms

Events that take place on St. Basil's Day are thought to set the tone for the entire year. According to Greek folklore, a household's luck in the coming year depends on who enters first. This person symbolizes the household's fortunes in the year to come. Many families hope that a strong, healthy person will be the first to cross their threshold after the stroke of midnight. In this case, the family would be blessed with good health. Others prefer to have an icon (a religious image) enter first, held in someone's outstretched arms. This is thought to confer spiritual blessings. Tradition encourages householders to welcome the first person to enter the house in the new year with coins and sweets. Some people insist that the person must cross the threshold with his or her right foot in order to bring good luck.

Because the events on St. Basil's Day are so important, a number of superstitions advise people to think happy thoughts, to avoid crying and quarreling, and to eat abundantly. Wearing new clothes will help to insure a good wardrobe in the year to come.

St. Basil's Water

Some Greek families perform a ceremony called the "renewal of the waters" on St. Basil's Day. Family members empty all the containers of water in their home and then refill them with St. Basil's water (water collected on St. Basil's Day). Some people also ask a priest to come to the home and bless it with holy water.


The ship is a symbol of St. Basil's Day because folk tradition insists that St. Basil used this mode of transport to journey from Turkey, his ancestral homeland, to Greece. On December 24, Greek youth go caroling from house to house. They often carry with them small boats made of wood, cardboard, or tin. These ships represent St. Basil's journey across the Aegean Sea to bring gifts to Greek children. The children use the ships to collect the coins and sweets given to them by their neighbors.


St. Basil's eve is also NEW YEAR'S EVE. Many Greek families stay up late, entertaining guests and playing cards. At the hour of midnight, everyone shouts "kali chronia" (good year) and "chronia polla" (many years). Then the host cuts the vasilopita, (Basil's bread). This sweetened bread is made especially for the holiday. A coin is placed inside the dough before baking. Many Greek families follow a custom whereby the head of the household cuts the bread, reserving the first piece of bread for Christ, the second for St. Basil, the third for the Virgin Mary, and the fourth for the poor. After that, each family member and guest receives a slice of bread. Whoever receives the coin in their slice will have good luck in the year to come. New Year's carols, whose lyrics offer respect to St. Basil and express hope for good fortune in the new year, are also sung on NEW YEAR'S EVE and NEW YEAR'S DAY.


Gulevich, Tanya. Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations. 2nd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2003. Rouvelas, Marilyn. A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs In America. Bethesda, MD: Nea Attiki, 1993.


Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, IL St. Basil's Academy, Garrison, NY