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Saint Basil — a Towering Figure in Greek History

Saint Basil
Icon of Saint Basil in the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki, Greece. Credit: Public Domain

Saint Basil, whose feast day is on January 1, is always remembered by the Greek people as the figure who bore gifts and helped children, the poor, and the underprivileged around Christmastime.

This is not terribly difficult to understand since Saint Basil was a towering figure in the early days of Christianity in that part of the world.

Saint Basil of Caesarea, who lived from A.D. 329 to January 1, 379, was a near contemporary of Saint Nicholas, who died around the year 343.

Basil served the Church as the bishop of Caesarea Mazaca in Cappadocia, a Greek-speaking province in Asia Minor, in what is now modern-day Turkey.

Theology and guidelines for monastic life

He was an influential theologian who supported the Nicene Creed, the foundational statement of the beliefs of Christians, and opposed the heresies of the early Christian church, fighting against both Arianism and the followers of Apollinaris of Laodicea.

His ability to balance his theological convictions with his political connections made Basil a powerful advocate for the Nicene position.

Basil was the first churchman to establish guidelines for monastic life.

They focused on community life, liturgical prayer, and manual labor. Together with Pachomius, he is remembered as a father of communal monasticism in Eastern Christianity.

He is considered one of the greatest saints by the traditions of both Eastern and Western Christianity.

Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa are collectively referred to as the Cappadocian Fathers.

The Eastern Orthodox Church and Eastern Catholic Churches have given him, together with Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom, the title of “Great Hierarch.”

Saint Basil noted for his care for the poor

He is recognized as a Doctor of the Church in the Roman Catholic Church as well. He is sometimes referred to by the epithet Ouranophantor (Greek: Οὐρανοφάντωρ), “revealer of heavenly mysteries.”

The great saint was not just an intellectual but was firmly rooted in this world as well, becoming known early on for his care for the poor and underprivileged and for his extremely generous nature.

Legend has it that tax collectors once overtaxed the people to the extent that they were forced to hand over all their jewelry to the authorities.

Basil declared that this was unjust, and forced the tax collectors to give him the jewelry so that he could return it to the people. Of course, at that point, it was impossible to determine which jewelry belonged to whom.

So he came up with the novel idea to bake cakes, with the jewelry placed inside them, and to distribute the cake slices amongst the populace.

Each person received a piece of the cake with jewelry baked inside it, and the riches were thereby distributed back to the people.

This is the source of the Greek tradition of the “Vasilopita” celebrated on January 1 each year.

Saint Basil’s gift-giving

This incident has never been forgotten among the Greek people, who forever after associated Basil with the tradition of gift-giving.

So, despite the fact that nowadays most Greeks exchange gifts on Christmas Day rather than on New Year’s Day and are more familiar with the figure of Santa Claus rather than that of Saint Basil, the tradition of this great Cappadocian saint remains alive.

His figure might have been somewhat obscured by the jolly, red-cheeked Santa Claus in many areas of the world, but his name is still there, reminding us that for the Greeks, it was Basil who made holidays a little happier for those in real need.

And his feast day of January 1 is the perfect time to commemorate his life, which was so full of generosity and good works.

Happy New Year!

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