Why is a coin buried in bread, cake, or other edibles, at all?
It is said that the Vasilopita tradition began in the 4th century
when Basil, Bishop of Caesarea, in Cappadocia, later to be Saint Basil
the Great, Ἅγιος Βασίλειος ὁ Μέγας (c. 330 – January 1, 379), who was
known for his care of the poor and underprivileged (he established an
orphanage for little children and founded the first Christian hospital
in the world) had gold coins baked into sweetened bread as a way of
distributing money to the poor without invoking embarrassment. Another
legend is that Saint Basil called on the citizens of Caesarea to raise a
ransom payment to stop an enemy siege of the city. They gave whatever
they had in gold and jewelry, and the enemy chieftain was so embarrassed
by this act of collective giving that he suspended the siege. Saint
Basil was left with the task of returning the valuables without knowing
to whom each belonged, so to solve the dilemma he had all of the
valuables baked into loaves of bread and distributed the loaves to the
city. The miracle: each citizen received exactly what he had given.
Loaves of bread are not involved in the story of another 4th-century
saint, Nikolaos, Bishop of Myra (also located in Asia Minor) later to
be Saint Nicholas, Ἅγιος Νικόλαος, or Nikolaos the Wonderworker,
Νικόλαος ὁ Θαυματουργός, (270 – December 6, 343), but this saint is also
associated with secret gift-giving. The legend is that Saint Nicholas
put coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him.
Over the centuries these two legends have blended. The Eastern
“Santa” is identified with Saint Basil and the Western Santa Claus
remains associated with Saint Nicholas. In Greek tradition, Saint Basil
brings gifts to children on January 1. In other traditions Father
Christmas arrives either on December 6, Saint Nicholas Day, or on
Christmas Eve, December 24.