There are many who will not mourn the passing of 2016 – which was by any standards a turbulent year – and you especially I wish a calmer, kinder and more peaceful 2017.
The state of the modern world seems to be deteriorating, but it’s worth remembering in what appear to be turbulent times that our penchant for squabbling, fighting and generally failing to get along predates any current crises by millenia.
January 1st is St Basil’s day in Greece, and the nameday of all Vassilis’s and Vassilia’s including my son - Χρόνια Πολλά! St Basil was a fourth-century aesthete born in Caesarea, a city which was at that time in Palestine but is now in the state of Israel. During his life he travelled widely to meet with other Christians, and spent time in Athens, Egypt and Syria. After his death around 380AD, he evolved into a Greek Santa Claus, who brings presents to Greek children on New Year’s Day. His physical legacy is in the form of many relics, and his courage and leadership in the face of adversity is remembered in the Vasilopita, an almond cake traditionally eaten at midnight on New Year’s Eve. The Vasilopita contains a coin, and whoever finds the coin in their slice of the cake will have good luck in the coming year.
What is the origin of the coin in the Vasilopita? According to legend, Caesarea was under siege, and St Basil undertook the task of collecting valuables from the city’s inhabitants to pay a ransom to free the city. But when he presented this collection to the would-be invaders, the enemy’s general was embarrassed to accept it, and allowed the city to remain free. Left with all the citizens’ valuables, St Basil had the dilemma of returning them to their rightful owners, so he had them baked into loaves to be distributed amongst the people. And by a miracle, when the people cut into the bread, they each found their own belongings baked inside.
The cake is cut by the most senior member of the family, with the first piece being dedicated to the Saviour, the second to the Virgin Mary and the third to St Basil himself. After that, slices are cut for the family in order of seniority, from the eldest to the youngest.
But St Basil’s home of Caesarea was never a peaceful place. From 400AD, control of the city passed from Persians to Turks and back again, with John of Nikiu referring to the terrible ‘horrors’ committed there in 640AD. In the ninth century the city was ‘reduced’ by further invasion, before falling to the control of invading Christian Crusaders in 1101. Saladin retook Caesarea in 1187, only to lose it to the Crusaders again in 1191. In 1265 it fell to the Mamluks – originally slave-soldiers with origins in Greece, Albania and the Balkans – who razed the city to prevent it being used by other nations as a fortress. The city lay in ruins until the 1880s when it was re-occupied as a fishing village by Bosnian refugees.
All crushingly familiar, wouldn’t you say – a non-stop cycle of belligerence, war-mongering, conquest and counter-conquest, which makes our own difficult times appear less the fault of modern-day politics and more the inevitable result of our fatally flawed human nature.
Is there anything to be done? I think so, yes. In 2016, we argued and fell out amongst ourselves over political issues. Friendships were broken over matters which will prove to be impermanent. Can we commit in 2017 to be calmer, more peaceable individuals, people more open to others’ points of view?
I have several resolutions for the new year: to tend my vegetables, to spend time in Greece, to read good books, to write a new Hermes novel and, most importantly, to spend time with the people who mean most to me. In short, my ambition – a worthy life’s ambition, perhaps? – is to make my small corner of the world a place of Epicurean calm. In the face of the world outside, what more can any of us do?
Happy 2017, all.
Author of the Mysteries of the Greek Detective, books with a touch of mythology set in almost-contemporary Greece, and featuring lots of fabulous Greek food.