There are many traditions that are unique to Orthodox Christian life. These traditions have developed over hundreds of years and become entwined with the expression of faith in many Orthodox countries. Here are just a few.
The Blessing of Five Loaves, or Artoklasia, is a brief service of thanksgiving through which we express our gratitude for all the blessings of life. Oil, wine, wheat, and the loaves of bread which are used in the service, are viewed as the most basic elements necessary for life. The Blessing reminds us of the miracle of the multiplication of the bread and fish by which Christ fed the multitude. This Blessing is usually offered during a Vigil or after the Divine Liturgy on Feast days and other special occasions. After the service, the bread is cut and distributed to the congregation.
Our parish has a tradition of offering a Stewardship Artoklasia on the Sunday preceding Thanksgiving. The loaves are offered to God with our completed stewardship cards, in thanksgiving for everything that we have.
The Orthodox Church teaches that through our prayers, those “who have fallen asleep in the faith and the hope of the Resurrection” continue to have opportunity to grow closer to God. Therefore, the Church prays constantly for her members who have died in Christ. We place our trust in the love of God and the power of mutual love and forgiveness. We pray that God will forgive the sins of the faithful departed, and that He will receive them into the company of Saints in the heavenly Kingdom. The Orthodox Church remembers the departed in the prayers of every Divine Liturgy, but also has a special Memorial Service, said on numerous occasions.
After the death of an Orthodox Christian, a Trisagion and Funeral service are said in preparation for the burial of the body. Then the Church with the family, continues to offer memorial services to pray for the soul of the departed on the 9th day, the 40th day, the 6-month anniversary and then the 1-year anniversary of the date of repose. Memorials are then said annually on the date of repose.
In addition to these personal memorials that families organize for their departed loved ones, there are general memorial services said on four specific Saturdays set aside to commemorate the departed. These are: the two Saturdays preceding Great Lent; the first Saturday of Great Lent; and, the Saturday before Pentecost. In the United States the Service is also offered by some parishes on Memorial Day.
When a memorial service is offered, it is customary for the family of the deceased to bring a dish of boiled wheat, called kollyva, to the Church. Kollyva is made from boiled wheat berries with raisins, chopped nuts and powdered sugar are added. Additional ingredients vary–some include pomegranate seeds, parsley and anise. One recipe for Kollyva is available in our Parish Cookbook. After the memorial service the kollyva is served to all who have attended. This wheat dish is a symbol of the Resurrection. When speaking of the Resurrection, our Lord said: “Unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)
“Eternal be their memory. Eternal be their memory. May their memory be eternal.” (The hymn chanted at the conclusion of the memorial service)
Red Eggs for Pascha
Red Eggs are distributed after the midnight Paschal service. This blessed egg is the first festal food eaten to break the Lenten fast and usher in the celebration of Pascha. The egg has been a symbol of the Resurrection since the early days of Christianity. After the Resurrection, Mary Magdalene traveled to Rome to tell the emperor about everything that happened in Jerusalem, including Pontius Pilate’s role in the events. The emperor said, “It is just as likely that Jesus rose from the dead as it is that the egg in your hand will turn red.” At that moment, the white egg turned red, and thus the red egg became part of the announcement of the Resurrection. Early Christians also had the custom of dyeing and decorating eggs at Pascha (Easter). The color red was used in memory of the blood of Christ, shed at His Crucifixion.
Another tradition has arisen, involving the red eggs. After the service, you’ll find people hitting their eggs together. The person whose egg cracks then says, “Christ is Risen!” and the person whose egg is whole responds, “Truly He is Risen!” This greeting and response are shared by Orthodox Christians for the full 40 days following Pascha (with or without eggs in hand).
The eggs are traditionally hardboiled and dyed on Holy Thursday.
The Vasilopita (St. Basil’s Bread)
One of the most beautiful and inspiring traditions and customs of the Greek Orthodox Church is the observance of Vasilopita. It is this annual family observance, together with many other traditions of our Church, which joins our Orthodox Faith and heritage with the history of the Christian religion itself.
The word Vasilopita is a compound Greek word which means the sweet ‘bread of Basil.’
This age old tradition commenced in the fourth century, when St. Basil the Great, who was a bishop, wanted to distribute money to the poor in his diocese. There are various traditions about the reasons behind the distribution, but the stories all agree in the matter of how he did it. St. Basil commissioned some women to bake sweetened bread, in which he arranged to place gold coins. Thus the families cutting the bread to nourish themselves, were pleasantly surprised to find the coins.
The Annual Home Observance
This event, which happened in Cappadocia of Caesarea in the last half of the fourth century, is very much alive in our Orthodox homes each year on January 1st. According to tradition, special sweet bread or cake is prepared both in the Orthodox homes and in the Church community which is called Vasilopita. Sweets are added to the bread, which symbolize the sweetness and joy of life everlasting. It also symbolizes the hope that the New Year will be filled with the sweetness of God’s blessings for all who participate in the Vasilopita Observance. When the Vasilopita is prepared, a coin is usually added to the ingredients. When the bread is cut and the observance begins, the individual who receives that portion of the pita, which is contains the coin is considered blessed.
This tradition adds joy to the celebration at the beginning of the New Year, which everyone hopes will bring joy to all. Many Orthodox Christians enjoy the Vasilopita at home with their loved ones during the New Year celebration. The head of the family cuts the pieces of pita for all members of the family. Since St. Basil loved the poor people, a special piece is also cut for the unfortunate of the world, which symbolizes our concern for poverty-stricken people of all nations.
Cutting the Vasilopita
The head of the household will bless the Vasilopita with the cutting knife crosswise in the Name of the Trinity. He then will cut a piece as an offering to Jesus Christ, Who is our life. Then he will proceed to cut pieces for the Ever-Virgin Mary, for St. Basil, himself, and the other members of his family (in the parish, we also cut a piece for our local hierarch) and all those present until the entire pita is distributed.
In some parts of the world, Greece for example, gifts are also exchanged on St. Basil’s Day at the time of the Vasilopita cutting, in honor of St. Basil’s example of unselfish giving which has given him fame as “the father of philanthropy.” He is said to have developed for the needy, an entire city, named Basiliadas, that include an orphanage and the world’s first modern hospital.
The Vasilopita is a joyous observance, and it is a custom that should not be neglected by Orthodox Christians in the Western world. It is a wonderful way to begin each New Year, which God has given to the world. We will celebrate the Vasilopita together as a parish immediately after services on Sunday, January 1st.
Supplies and Recipes
Although most bakers use a quarter wrapped in tin-foil, there are also special Vasilopita coins imprinted with an image of St. Basil the Great now available. They are carried at Logos Bookstore.
Blessing our homes is an ancient tradition in our Orthodox Church related to the Service of the Great Blessing of the Waters conducted on Theophany. We take the holy water from the Church and we use it to bless our lives in every way possible. The priest blesses us, our homes, our cars, our yards, and by extension all of creation. Not only do we receive a special blessing from God, but through that blessing, God enables us to see His creation in a redeemed way, as a means toward union and communion with Him. For more information read “Houseblessings 101.”