Saint Basil: scholar and gift-giver

Today (1 January) is the feast day of Saint Basil the Great in the Eastern churches. Basil wrote many theological works and is remembered (along with the two Gregorys, of Nyssa and Nazianzus—pictured below) as one of the Cappadocian Fathers, who played an influential role in the development of patristic thinking about the triune God.

It is said that Basil was tall, thin, partly bald, with a long beard. (He is the one on the left in the icon above.) He ate no more than was absolutely necessary for his survival; he never ate meat. It is said that he had only one worn undergarment and one overgarment.

Basil said that prayer was the seasoning for our daily work, as we season food with salt; that sacred and holy songs can only inspire us and give us joy and not grief. His philosophy fits well into the Christmas Season, when we season our lives with carols!

At the age of 28, Basil “left the world” and became a monk; at 35 a priest, then at 41, the Bishop of Caesarea. It is said that Basil, being born into a wealthy family, gave away all his possessions to the poor, the underprivileged, those in need, and children.

For Greeks and others in the Orthodox tradition, St Basil is the saint associated with Santa Claus. In Greek tradition, he brings gifts to children every January 1 (St Basil’s Day). It is traditional on St Basil’s Day to serve vasilopita, a rich bread baked with a coin inside.

It is also customary on his feast day to visit the homes of friends and relatives, to sing carols for the New Year, and to set an extra place at the table for Basil.

The celebration of St Basil on 1 January marks the day of his death. In the Western Church, because 1 January commemorates the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, Basil shares his saintly commemoration on the next day, 2 January, with Gregory of Nazianzus.

St Basil’s Hymn is one of many traditional Greek carols (often referred to as calanda) that are still sung by children on St Basil’s feast day (New Year’s Day). In the tradition still practiced to some extent in modern times, Greek children roam the neighborhoods from house-to-house on St Basil’s Day, playing instruments and singing songs, bidding New Year’s tidings to everyone, and receiving gifts of sweets and pastries from householders.

Here is the hymn (in a quirky and rather stilted translation):

It’s the beginning of the month
beginning of the year
High incense tree
Beginning of my good year
Church with the Holy Seat
It’s the beginning of our Christ
Saint and spiritual
He got out to walk on earth
And to welcome us
St. Basil is coming from Caesarea
And doesn’t want to deal with us
May you long live, my lady
He holds an icon and a piece of paper
With the picture of Christ our Saviour
A piece of paper and a quill
Please look at me, the young man

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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