The commercialization of everything but also the pointless imitation (xenomania) of Modern Greeks towards anything that arrives in Greece from the West has altered not only the beautiful customs of that Orthodox country during Christmas and New Year's Day but also the name of one of the most important Fathers of the Church.
Saint Basil the Great (AD 330 - 379) was bishop of Caesarea: educated, active and socially sensitive -- and not some simpleton old man going "ho ho ho". He didn't even have any chance to become old as he fell asleep at the age of 49. He studied philosophy in Athens as well as all other sciences of his time, and also wrote numerous theological and scientific works. He was not however a theoretician but a man of the everyday world. Thus, he was interested in the slaves, the poor; he would fight social injustice and developed a vast charity network. He erected the famous Basilliad (or Vasilliad), a whole city with an Orthodox temple, hostels and a hospital. Finally, he also gave all his fortune to the poor and on his deathbed he only had one raso (Orthodox vestments) and a few books.
How does St. Basil though connect to New Year's Day and to the Greek customs for this festal season?, many will wonder.
The facts are as follows:
At a time when the sub-prefect of Cappadocia had gone to collect the unbearable taxes from the Cappadocians, the residents brought many gifts in order to appease him. The mediation and hard words of the politically incorrect Saint who did not have manners or European politeness but was a candid Orthodox hierarch made an impression upon the sub-prefect who left without taking anything. However, the gathered gifts (of gold or other small yet precious objects) that had been presented to the sub-prefect had been mixed up! St. Basil placed each precious object inside small Greek pies and shared them between the people.
Tradition informs us that each one of them found inside their pie the object they had offered. Afterwards the custom of "vasilopita" (Basil's pie) began to be celebrated in Greece, stemming from the aforementioned event. This "vasilopita" is a medium-sized cake that each family bakes or buys from sweet shops for New Year's Day (and the remaining festal days before the strict fast) that contains inside a small symbolical "piece of gold"; usually a small silver coin covered in golden paper or something similar. When each member of the family, group, committee etc. that gather to "cut the vasilopita" has received their piece, they check to see who won the coin. The one who did normally receives some small pre-determined prize from the others.
As is well known, the Orthodox Church takes such nice customs and adds them perfectly inside the temple in an obvious way. Thus, on New Year's Eve, the faithful who gather in the churches for a service -- so that their New Year may be blessed -- usually receive at the end a very small "basil pie" that was blessed during Artoklasia together with their antidoron. The one parishioner who "wins" receives a special blessing and perhaps some small gift from the parish church.
Of course, this is not something that constitutes a canon of the Orthodox Tradition, not even locally. Similar customs exist in other Orthodox countries and areas. The Church always blesses our customs in this way, when they are God-loving and pious, by providing us with a blessing inside the temple.
What a beautiful custom! What beautiful stories! How many generations indeed grew up with such beautiful stories, saw the New Year come under the flames of dim candles in a semi-lit church with the bells ringing the New Year's arrival!
The St. Basil of Hellenic customs is a "New Year's Day" Saint as opposed to "Christmas Eve", brunet, thin, smiling, having a black beard and handsome eyebrows. He would start travelling after Christmas from the depths of Asia Minor to arrive to all areas of Hellenism. With his stick he would miraculously turn dead branches to grow again, yet he did not have a sack full of gifts. Even though he had no sack of gifts, he did bring to people the Gift of Blessing from God. The housekeepers would give gifts to children that would turn up to their doorstep singing the carols of "Ai-Vasili", so that they themselves would have the blessing of the Saint in the New Year. "Ai-Vasilis is coming from Caesarea" and "holds paper and ink" and offers as a gift the joy of knowledge in Christ.
Western Christian folklore had given the place of our St. Basil to St. Nicholas, the protector of sailors, merchants and children. St. Nicholas is indeed another great Saint of the Orthodox Church and is a well-known Saint amongst the whole world. His story is quite well-known amongst people in the West so we will not expand here.
In the 17th century, Dutch Calvinist immigrants brought St. Nicholas to America. Instead of celebrating his memory on December 6, however, they decided to connect his memory with Christmas' Eve, so that "he can bring gifts to children". In 1804 the "New York Historical Society" was formed having St. Nicholas (in Dutch Sinterklaas) as their patron saint. The members of the society rekindled the Dutch custom of St. Nicholas "that brings gifts". In 1809, Washington Irving published his "A History of New York" where, amongst other issues, he satirized the Dutch tradition of St. Nicholas. 1812 finds his work re-published with St. Nicholas flying on his sleigh above the trees to bring gifts to children. In 1821, the New-Yorker pressman William Gilley will publish the poem "Sante-claus" that wanted the saint dressed in a fur coat and holding the reins of a flying sleigh, led by one reindeer.
On Christmas of 1822, New-Yorker Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas" for his children. (It was published later on and is best known as "The night before Christmas"). Moore augmented the number of reindeer from one to eight and placed Santa Claus or St. Nick coming down the chimney. The idea of the chimney as well as that of the reindeer had been borrowed by a Finnish fairy tale. The new Santa Claus had a character, but he did not have a face yet. This work was undertaken by the American cartoonist Thomas Nast, who sketched Moore's fantasy story in 1823. In 1863 Nast depicted Santa Claus in "Harper's Weekly" magazine dressed in a fur coat, from top to bottom; and indeed continued the evolution of Santa's shape until 1881. Nast's Santa Claus remained the same basically as the one we know today: wearing the red suit, the white beard, living on North Pole where he makes toys, reads his books with fairy tales, makes his own clothes, decorates the fir tree, and brings toys to children.
The happy and generous figure of Santa Claus was also adopted in the United Kingdom, where it received elements from:
a.) the "Father/Man of Christmas" (more commonly known solely as "Father Christmas" or Weihnachtsmann in Germany, Pere Noel in France) who was Scandinavian and Germanic in origin: a good-natured yet vague ascetic figure of folklore, and
b.) the "Christ-babe" (Cristkindlein);
And a new custom was created.
The new form of Santa Claus was also brought to America from European immigrants; and thus the stout little old man known as Santa Claus is born, who brings toys to the children when they are asleep, and all the other paraphernalia.
Santa Claus was also known as Pelznickel (German for "Nicholas in a fur coat"; American accent: Belsnickle), and as the "holy babe" (Criscringle). The beginning of the 20th century, finds the new Santa Claus already having taken shape from this mixture of Anglo-Saxon folkloric traditions with literary additions; yet his depiction had not yet become standardized: At other times he would be fat, at other times he would be thinner, although still quite "round"; his fur coat was not compulsory yet, as sometimes he would be depicted in a red, blue, green, even mauve suit.
In 1931 Coca-Cola decided to use Santa Claus in its winter advertising campaign, in order to increase its sales in the middle of winter. The task was placed on the shoulders of American Haddon Sundblom. He was the one that dressed Santa Claus in the colours of Coca-Cola, in exactly the same way we know him today to look like: black boots, red suit, white fur, and of course with a bottle of Coca-Cola in his hand. Santa Claus would now bring Coca-Cola as a gift to children! The company did not invent Santa Claus, yet it disambiguated the depiction of modern-day Santa Claus, which, due to the great success of its product, was imposed on every corner of the globe, and together with his "icon" came of course the "modern tradition" of Santa Claus. Thus, Santa Claus was connected with Coca-Cola and became its symbol!
Others became jealous of Cola-Cola's successful campaign and decided to imitate it. It is in this way that the new "tradition" on his supposed descent from Greenland, Laponia and elsewhere was created. It is also well-known that many magazines show photos of models dressed in Santa Claus outfits, whereas even in Greece today all Greek "sexy models" on television ensure they also shake their behinds wearing the "sexy edition" of the latest Santa Claus outfits. After all, Greeks must not stay "behind"!
Thus, in the West, we see that a mixture of folkloric traditions on St. Nicholas, Father Christmas and the Christkindlein (= Holy Child), together with the addition of fairy tales, finishing the touch with a substantial amount of literary imagination, have led to the creation of a new Santa Claus in the USA; a Santa Claus, who, in 1931, is officially crystallized in the above image and promoted as such by Coca-Cola.
Thus a religious traditional festive Christian Holiday gave rise to a worldly-commercial "holiday". The confusion in Greece is even worse than it is in Europe. We kept the name of St. Basil (Ai-Vasili), we removed the characteristics of the Hellenic customs that we mentioned above (based on reality and not myths), and adopted for him the mythical "story" of the Western Santa Claus under the image (of course) of the Coca-Cola Santa Claus. We couldn't be backwards; I understand!
The wise, ascetic, brunet Ai-Vasilis from Caesarea, that brings the gift of knowledge in Christ, is transformed to the red Santa Claus that brings the gift of commercial goods. Santa Claus represents worldly prosperity and utilitarianism, whereas Ai-Vasilis of the Orthodox tradition represents knowledge and self-consciousness.
The old idolatric pagan feast has returned in the form of neo-paganism under the face of Mammon (money). Why don't we also change the name of Christmas and of Ai-Vasili in order to be done with? Let us call them "Giftmas" or "Toymas" and as for the pagan god; why not call him "Coca-Claus"?
important Fathers = No, we are not going to refer the reader to St. Nicholas of Myra in Lycia (December 6) but to St. Basil the Great that the Greeks, as Orthodox Christians, celebrate on New Year's Day and not on Christmas' Eve. "Santa Claus" has come to replace the figure of our Ai-Vasili ("St. Bill") with that of the commercial "Santa Claus" we all know about (who has replaced "St. Nick" in the West).
sub-prefect = There is a story behind this man. It is likely that he mediated with the Emperor, through the Emperor's messengers and that St. Basil was not in fact aiming to appease him but the Emperor himself! Julian the Apostate was the Emperor and disliked St. Basil since youth. They had both studied together at the pagan Athens university, learning philology and philosophy. Julian had always been a pompous fool and jealously resented the virtuous Basil. It is believed that the negative focus of the Emperor on Caesarea in Cappadocia was due to his friction with St. Basil. Indeed, the Emperor once decided to cause problems to St. Basil and asked that Caesarea's citizens feed a large section of his army. Of course, the people in town were very poor, so St. Basil only managed to give back two loaves of bread to the messenger (and even go hungry because of this; that is how poor they were). However, the Emperor was enraged when the messenger brought back the two loaves, thinking that Basil was mocking him. So he sent back a large amount of hay (implying that the people in Caesarea were all animals). However, St. Basil accepted the hay and told the messenger to thank the Emperor and to tell him in turn that "we gave him what we eat and he gave us what he eats". Naturally, the arrogant anti-christian Emperor was deeply insulted by these remarks and sent a note to the sub-prefect that he would crush them after he returned from an imminent battle. St. Basil was grieved during this period, realising that they were all in danger. They all decided to give all their gold and other precious possessions to the Emperor, who was known to be niggardly, in order to appease him. The relics of St. Procopius were situated inside their temple and this is how the saint helped them through our Panagia. One night, while St. Basil was asleep he saw Virgin Mary in his dreams ask him why he was sad. He explained the problem to her and she told him not to worry and that she would sort things out. She then turned to St. Procopius and asked him to kill the impious Emperor. St. Procopius cocked an arrow on his bow and shot the Emperor who dropped dead. St. Basil woke up afterwards. He ignored the dream as something possibly demonic. However when he went to the temple he saw that the relics of St. Procopius had disappeared. He recalled the dream but was still unconvinced. He presumed them stolen until the guards assured him that in the past 15 minutes or so that he had been away, no one had entered. St. Basil was puzzled but remained unconvinced. He decided to carry out his task anyway and to bring these gifts to the Emperor. However, when the gifts arrived they found out that the Emperor had died from a heart attack during battle. (This is historically recorded to be true.) He then recalled what had taken place in his dream and thanked our Panagia with all his heart. When he returned to Caesarea he realised that if all the gifts that had been mixed up were to be returned, many people would not take their things but what looked most expensive! There seemed no way of doing this in a fair manner. So he decided to bake small breads (pies) and place one object in each pie. He then gathered the people (who had agreed to this) and randomly gave them one pie. The deal was that each person would receive what was in his or her pie. The miracle that happened afterwards was that everyone received what was theirs!
= Obviously under the Adjusted Julian Calendar that the Greeks follow, they
celebrate the Feast on the New Year that coincides with the West's New Year.
Most Orthodox Christians however follow the Julian Calendar and therefore celebrate
these feasts 13 days later (Christmas is celebrated on the 7th of January secular).
Whichever Calendar Orthodox follow, they all celebrate the Feast of St. Basil
the Great on "their" 1st of January, whenever that happens (secular,
i.e. adjusted Julian, or Julian). The point to underline here is that
this is an Orthodox Feast and not some Greek-only custom.