I have always loved this time of year between the two Christmases (New Style and Old Style) which falls for West during the twelve days of Christmas right before Epiphany on January 6. Unlike those in America who might feel that the lights have all been extinguished and it is time to go back to business as usual, I feel like the party is just getting started and not only for the Orthodox Christians who might be known for their extensive pre- and post-festive extravaganzas.
My colleague at the Catholic school where I teach an After School Program hails from Latin America in the global South. Much has been made in the past century about the importance of ecumenical dialogue between East and West. Well, I am here to announce the need in this century to commence the dialogue between the North and the South because as far as rich liturgical customs go, yo, they got the party started a LONG time ago.
Every Friday afternoon in After School, my colleague and I like to bake something with our respective classes. In honor of the New Year, I decide today to introduce my class to the Greek custom of making vasilopeta, a festive sweet bread commemorating both the New Year and the Feast of St. Basil whose day falls on January 1 for the Orthodox. Inside of this “Basil’s bread” (what vasilopeta means literally) is baked a coin and as the slices are cut for family members oldest to youngest, everyone waits with breathless anticipation to see who will receive the coin. The tradition is that whoever gets the coin receives the blessing of the saint for that year. Providentially this year, in both my classes and at home, the youngest person found the coin, but many times it is found by the oldest one upon cutting the first slice. I remember one year that I found the coin and the blessing of the saint for me meant the ability to walk from home to work every day, but it can vary from person to person.
Proud of my accomplishment in making a difficult baking project and eager to share our rich Orthodox custom with my neighbor across the hall, I brought her a slice…
Only to discover to my wonder and amazement that she had baked with her class something equally intriguing and surprisingly complementary to vasilopeta. I found her students students eagerly cutting into a colorful cake with more than usual interest in its contents. “So, what did you make in your class today?” I asked, handing her a slice of vasilopeta.
“It’s called Three King’s Cake.”
“Ah, right. I have heard of this but never witnessed it before. It’s baked for the Epiphany party on January 6, and there’s something baked inside, no?”
“Yes, it is supposed to be a small, ceramic baby Jesus, but since we did not have one, a piece of hard macaroni is standing in for the Son of God.”
We both chuckled at the improvisation as I proceeded to explain our tradition of the coin in the Basil’s bread. Then I asked her what the significance was for the person at the Epiphany party that finds the baby Jesus in their slice, “What blessing do they receive?”
“It’s not just a blessing they receive, but it means that the person has been chosen to host the next liturgical party of Candlemas, or the Presentation of the Lord at the Temple on February 2.”
“In other words,” I said, “it means Jesus is coming to your house like Zacchaeus; you had better get your house in order.”
“Right, that’s the meaning of this Epiphany blessing. That you receive the honor of showing hospitality to your neighbors.”
I wanted to go on and on about vasilopeta, but I felt already one-upped by this edible ecumenical exchange, and it left me hungry for more. I conclude that we Orthodox Christians are sometimes too quick to presume our superiority to other Christians. But possessing the fullness of the faith is no excuse for behaving like snobs. If anything, it should humble us enough to appreciate traditions and customs that are as strong and sometimes better than ours in others who confess belief in Christ. As an Orthodox Christian, Christianity ceases being something I have done or possess and evolves into everything I was/am. In drawing me closer to Christ, the Church automatically causes me to bless every party thrown in His holy name.