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Tasty treat sweetens Greek celebration of St. Basil's Day

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/01/01/HO4KU281P.DTL San Francisco Chronicle Tasty treat sweetens Greek celebration of St. Basil s Day
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 1, 2008

      San Francisco Chronicle
      Tasty treat sweetens Greek celebration of St. Basil's Day

      Nicole Spiridakis, Special to The Chronicle

      Tuesday, January 1, 2008

      I have always wanted to learn more about my Greek heritage. And each
      year at this time, I especially long for a large family to gather
      together and share the vaselopita on Jan. 1 in celebration of St. Basil's Day.

      The smell of my dad's dolmas (grape leaves stuffed with seasoned
      rice) always means Christmas to me, even though they're not
      necessarily a traditional holiday dish. And if my Anglo mom didn't
      make spanakopita (spinach and filo pastry layered with feta cheese),
      I'd feel as though something was missing from the celebration. Even
      though we weren't part of a wider Greek community, we would try in
      our own small way.

      My Greek American friends told me they don't celebrate Christmas too
      differently from the way I grew up celebrating. They also put up a
      tree, get together for a big meal, exchange a few presents and
      generally enjoy a day off.

      Of course, to those who are part of the Greek Orthodox faith,
      Christmas is a more solemn, religious holiday - as it is, too, for
      many other Americans.

      Simon Economides, my best friend from college, remembers being woken
      up late at night on Christmas Eve to go to church for midnight Mass.

      His wife, Lena, who grew up in a small village in northern Greece,
      said her family didn't really celebrate Christmas, though when she
      was young she was given a few presents. For the most part, however,
      she said Christmas in Greece is the celebration of the name day of
      Christina and Christos, and there isn't the enormous gift-giving that
      happens here in the States. Children might receive small gifts or money.

      For Greeks, Christmas lasts much longer than just one day - in fact,
      it lasts for a good month, culminating in a Jan. 1 celebration of St.
      Basil, complete with a special cake. The season begins Dec. 6, with
      the Feast of St. Nicholas, and lasts through Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany.

      Angie Leventis, from the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral in San
      Francisco, said that Jan. 1, in addition to being New Year's Day,
      marks the eighth day of Christmas, and is one of the "most beautiful
      and inspiring traditions and customs of the Greek Orthodox Church."

      She said Orthodox Christians in the States enjoy the vaselopita at
      home during the New Year's celebration.

      Traditionally, the women of the family bake the round, sweet, cakey
      loaf with a coin baked inside. Before cutting, the cake is spun
      around to invoke the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

      Then it's cut by the head of the household - first a piece for
      Christ, then one for St. Basil and then one for each member of the
      household. Whoever receives the coin is considered blessed and will
      receive good luck in the coming year. Simon, whose family runs a
      business, said they do two pitas a year: one for the house and one
      for the business, to bring luck and prosperity.

      The custom of serving vaselopita originated in the fourth century,
      with St. Basil the Great, a bishop who wanted to distribute money to the poor.

      When the families who received the bread cut into it, they were
      surprised to find the money inside. Many say St. Basil established
      the custom as a way of giving assistance anonymously, especially to
      young women, who might otherwise be unable to marry because they
      lacked a dowry. St. Basil is much respected, as he was the first
      person to establish an orphanage for children and founded the first
      Christian hospital.

      St. Basil's feast day is also the name day for those named Vassilios
      and Vassiliki. Greeks have a Christian name that corresponds with the
      name of a religious figure or a saint.

      On the religious calendar, each day has a different feast and people
      celebrate their "name day" accordingly. On name days and St. Basil's
      Day, people visit their friends and relatives or call to wish them
      "hronia pola," or many happy returns. The name day is actually
      considered more important than the person's birthday, which is often
      overlooked in favor of celebrating the name day.

      Simon said he tries to call his friends and family on their name days
      but noted "our generation isn't doing it as much as the older
      generation; it's become more secular."

      In my small apartment in San Francisco, I usually acquire a little
      rosemary tree that, come to think of it, seems quite right, and a few
      poinsettia plants. This year I decided to bake trigona (honeyed
      pastry and nut triangles) and finikia (spice bars) - and, of course,
      a vaselopita, as a pre-St. Basil's Day test run.

      As I creamed the butter and sugar to make the cake, being sure to
      tuck in the coin for luck, I thought about my grandfather and
      wondered if he ever baked vaselopita. He left his small island for
      the United States when he was a teenager and never looked back.

      He worked in a New Jersey diner for much of his life. My dad said he
      made rizogolo, or rice pudding, around the holidays in Jersey City,
      but doesn't remember a special cake. I wondered if my grandfather's
      large family on Aegina made sure to cut the pieces small enough so
      everyone could have a bite.

      I take comfort in believing no matter how we grand- and
      great-grandchildren adapt to the times and create our own rites, we
      are better for the gifts we treasure that our ancestors don't even
      know they bequeathed to us.

      And if those gifts happen to include a vaselopita, well, I'm all the
      luckier for it.

      E-mail Nicole Spiridakis at home@....


      This article appeared on page G - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
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