Saint Basil the Great is among the most well-known and beloved Orthodox Saints. It is he, rather than Saint Nicholas, who is nowadays associated in Greece and Cyprus with the secular custom of Santa Claus, even though this custom has nothing to do with the real St. Basil of the Orthodox tradition. He is greatly celebrated on his feast day, January 1, so the coming of the new year is marked with his blessing. There are many traditions associated with his commemoration, including numerous local variations of the New Year’s Eve folk carols (Kalanta), as well as the well known Vasilopita.
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TEACHING ABOUT THE SAINT
As with every Saint, in addition to basic information about his life, we also want the children to remember that we should try to be like Saint Basil, and that we can pray for him to intercede to Christ for us. For more details on teaching about the Saints, please visit our pages All About Saints and November Saints.
PLANNING THE LESSON
- We have found that using a book to introduce St. Basil and his life is very helpful. Please see suggested books below.
- We follow the introduction with a discussion on the Saint’s life, concentrating on his asceticism, his selflessness, and his teachings.
- At the end of the discussion, we have the older children work on a Saint Fact Sheet, make a Calendar Card to hang in class, and/or work on additional worksheets from our printable packet above.
- We end the lesson with a fun activity, such as a craft or game.
- We normally teach this lesson around the Saint’s feast day, so, following the Greek tradition, we always cut a class Vasilopita at the very end of the session.
FUN ACTIVITY IDEAS
Cut out the image provided in the printable packet and glue it onto colored construction paper to make an icon of St. Basil. The icon can be embellished to the children’s fancy, using ribbons, gems or other decorations.
- Paper plate
- Tan or brown colored paper or felt – we used felt in the photo
- A brad (paper fastener)
- A small coin
- Various decorations such as ribbons, gems, stickers, coloring materials etc.
How to make the craft
- Cut a circle out of the colored paper or felt that will fit nicely inside the paper plate.
- Using a pencil, mark the center of the circle and then draw a triangular “slice”, being careful to avoid the center mark. Using scissors, cut along one of the edges of the slice. Fold up the slice along the other edge.
- Glue the coin anywhere inside the plate.
- Place the paper circle on the plate and poke a hole through the center, then insert a brad through the hole and secure in place. Make sure the brad is not very tightly fastened, so that the circle can rotate freely inside the plate.
- Decorate the “Vasilopita” as desired, noting the year and/or including a short phrase such as “Saint Basil’s Blessings”.
- The children can have fun folding down the slice, then rotating the circle. When they lift up the slice they can see if they found the coin which is hidden underneath.
A board game is included in our printable package to help teach basic facts of the Saint’s life in an interactive and fun way.
Review game ideas
Set a timer for the amount of time you want the game to last. Divide students into two teams. Teams take turns answering review questions. To earn a point, and only if the team answers the question correctly, they get a chance to:
Bounce a ping-pong ball into one of three plastic cups.
– OR –
Throw a small ball into a large container such as a laundry or trash basket.
– OR –
Using a small ball, knock down a number of upside-down plastic cups, bowling-style.
The team that has accumulated the most points when the timer goes off is the winner.
We have found the following books helpful in our lessons.
Life of Saint Basil the Great
Feast day: January 1
- Saint Basil was born in 329/30 A.D. in Caesarea, Cappadocia.
- He came from a rich and very pious family – many of his immediate relatives are also Saints of our Church (his mother Emmelia and his grandmother Macrina, as well as all his siblings, Macrina, Gregory of Nyssa, Peter of Sebastia, and Naucratius).
- As a young man, he received the best education of his time, in areas such as philosophy, history, rhetoric, astronomy, medicine, and geometry, not only in is native Caesarea, but also in Constantinople and Athens. In Athens he cultivated a strong friendship with the young Saint Gregory, later called “the Theologian”, a relationship that lasted for their whole lives.
- Upon completion of his studies, he returned to Caesarea, where he initially pursued a career as a rhetoric. Soon, under the influence of his older sister Macrina, he decided to give up his career and live as a monastic in voluntary poverty. He lead an ascetic life together with his friend Saint Gregory the Theologian, building monasteries and establishing guidelines for cenobitic monasticism.
- In 370, he became Bishop of Caesarea, where he ministered to his flock with great love and selflessness. He established hospitals, schools, orphanages and homes for the elderly. These institutions together consisted a small community named “Vasiliada”.
- Saint Basil fought fervently against heresies (false teachings), and wrote extensively on how to live and worship in the Orthodox way. He is considered the author of the Divine Liturgy bearing his name, which is celebrated ten times during the year.
- A laboring ascetic, Saint Basil reposed in complete poverty and in poor health, on January 1, 379, at the age of 49.
The Vasilopita tradition
The Greek tradition of the Vasilopita (St. Basil’s cake or pie, from the Greek Vasilios = Basil, and pita = pie) is an important part of the Greek New Year’s Day celebration. A special cake containing a hidden coin is cut and shared among the members of the household. Whoever gets the piece with the coin hidden inside of it, is considered to have St. Basil’s blessing for the whole year. This tradition is said to be based on the story that follows.
During a time of famine, the emperor demanded an excessive tax from the people of Caesarea, so each family had to give up all their valuables – money and/or jewelry. Upon finding out this injustice, St. Basil fearlessly defended his people, calling the emperor to repentance. The emperor was moved by St. Basil’s speech, canceled the tax and returned all the valuables to the Saint. The Saint was faced with a daunting task: out of a large amount of items, he had to return each one to its rightful owner. He prayed, then prepared a huge cake and baked the treasures inside of it. After calling his flock to prayer, he blessed and cut the cake, offering a piece to each person. Miraculously, each owner received his own valuables in his piece of the cake. Vasilopitas have been baked on St. Basil’s feast day every year since his repose, to commemorate this miracle.
Our Vasilopita recipe
There are countless Vasilopita variations, originating in different parts of Greece. We have been preparing the following super easy all-in-one recipe for our classrooms and homes for many years, with consistently excellent results.
- 1 cup softened butter
- 1 cup sugar
- 4 eggs
- 2 cups flour
- 3 tsp baking powder
- pinch of salt
- grated zest from one orange and one lemon, both unwaxed
- 1 tsp vanilla
- powdered sugar for dusting
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Wrap the coin in a small piece of aluminum foil. Generously butter a 9-inch springform pan and dust all over with flour. Beat all the ingredients together using a stand-mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until very light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Pour mixture into pan and bake for about 45 minutes, or until wooden skewer inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. You can either mix the coin in the raw dough after you pour the dough in the pan, or insert the coin at the bottom of the cake after it is baked. Let the cake cool and dust with powdered sugar. It is customary to write the number of the year in a decorative fashion on the cake’s surface.
- Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia – Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
- Saint Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia – Orthodox Church in America.
- The Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great – Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in America
- Saint Basil the Great – “Coffee with Sister Vassa” video series (main content starts at about minute 2:00).