New Year Traditions > Greek New Year

January 1st is an important date in Greece and Cyprus because it is not only the first day of the New Year but it is also Saint Basil’s Day.

Saint Basil the Great, the Greek equivalent to Santa Claus, was one the forefathers of the Greek Orthodox Church. He is remembered for his kindness and generosity to the poor. He is thought to have died on this date so this is how they honor him. New Year is perhaps even more festive and important then Christmas as it is the main day for gift-giving and for stories of Saint Basil’s kindness to children and the stories of how he would come in the night and leave gifts for the children in their shoes.

Greeks have a Christian name that is 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. January 1st is Saint Basil’s Day which is the day for those named Vassilios and Vassiliki. On name-days and Saint Basil’s day people visit their friends and relatives and exchange gifts, not just for those whose name-day it was but also for those whose name day it isn’t. On these visits they have a big feast of food, drinks and music.

There are many special dishes that are prepared at New Year but the most important dish is Vassilopitta or Saint Basil’s cake, inside the cake is placed a silver or gold coin. The cake is distributed in accordance to a strict order. First piece is for Saint Basil, the second for the house, the next for the most senior member of the household down to the youngest member and also including absent members. There may also be a piece of cake for the cattle and a large piece for the poor. Whoever finds the coin in their piece of cake will be lucky for the next year.

As well as the Saint Basil’s cake there is usually an abundance of food on the table including kourabiedes shortbread and diples, there is always honey on the table and olive-branches, nuts, fresh fruit and other symbols of happiness and wealth.

On New Year’s Eve the children sing carols and also on New Year’s Day. The first person across the threshold of the house on New Year’s Day is said to bring the family good luck throughout the coming year. The father, son or a lucky child was meant to be the first person across the threshold. A lucky child was someone who has both parents still alive.

According to an old tradition, Greek New Year’s Day too many is still September 1st for it is this date that they start of the Greek sowing season, a time of hope and promise. To start the New Year off right farmers’ families take plates of seeds to church for the priest to bless.

In Kos island people make first-of-the-year wreaths of pomegranates, grapes, quinces, garlic bulbs, and plane-tree leaves. Just before dawn on September 1st, the children carry their households’ wreaths down to the shore, the old year’s wreaths and the new ones, and they throw the old ones out to sea and immerse the New Year wreaths for good luck. Then they carry seawater and pebbles home in a jar, to serve with the wreaths as protective devices. Tradition calls for exactly 40 pebbles and water collected from the tops of exactly 40 waves.

In Rhodes island the first-of-the-year wreaths are made of walnuts, onions, garlic, grapes, tufts of cotton, and cloth bags full of grain from the fields. The year’s sowing, it is said, can begin only after the wreath has been hung up.

Girls in Greece once ate something salty before going to bed. They did this because they believed it would help them to dream about their future husband.

The New Year Cake came from the story about Saint Basil who it is said told how he helped the poor people to pay their taxes. The story goes that he took some jewelry from each person and gave it to the Governor. The Governor was sorry for the poor people and so he gave the jewelry back, they only problem was Basil did not know who owned each piece of jewelry. This is when it is told the miracle occurred. He baked each piece inside a loaf and when the loaves were given out, everyone had their own jewelery in the piece of loaf.