"Sharing Our Faith Traditions"
by Despina Manatos
When I was in 1st grade, I remember my mother coming to my classroom after the New Year with a Vasilopita. She explained the tradition to my class, cut pieces of the bread for everyone, and my classmate who found the coin in his bread, received a blessing for the New Year. I remember thinking it was pretty cool that she shared this fun tradition from our faith and culture with my teacher and my friends. I was very proud that they found my Greek Orthodox tradition so interesting and were very enthusiastic to learn about it.
Now that I am a parent, I find it extremely important that my generation continues to pass on such meaningful traditions of our faith and culture to our children. Furthermore, I feel like we need to share them with others in order for us to stay connected to our roots and facilitate our children’s pride in their heritage. Therefore, I always ask parents, are we doing the best we can to keep in touch with our roots and share our faith and traditions with others? How can we do this all throughout the year and not merely inviting our friends to our annual church festival?
At one of my daughter’s school events, I was asked to fill out a paper about the holidays our family celebrates. I checked off the typical ones, wrote “Orthodox Easter” next to Easter, and “namedays” where the line for “other” was. Then, I contacted the teacher to see if she wanted me to come and talk to my daughter’s class about this special day.
Think about this. We all have family members or friends who married someone outside the Orthodox faith. It is always nice to share our wedding traditions (the koufeta, the koumbari, the stefana, etc.) with the new spouse and his or her family. People of other faiths love our traditions because they are steeped in religious meaning and significance. The programs at weddings often explain the intricacies of the Orthodox wedding and the non-Orthodox guests appreciate the explanation. How proud we are to tell others that we are crowned as king and queen of our home with the stefana? It is so beautiful, and it is a part of the wedding ceremony that people love to learn about and witness.
So, let’s continue to communicate the rich meanings behind the things we celebrate in the Greek Orthodox faith. Here are three traditions we should be observing, explaining, and sharing with others whenever the opportunity presents itself:
1) Namedays: Our children need to know that they have a nameday! They also need to know something about the life of the saint or the story of the feast on the day which they celebrate. Every family should decide how to celebrate namedays and our children ought to look forward to them just as they do their birthdays. We should even be teaching our children the namedays of other family members and encourage them to give them a call to say “Xronia Polla.”
In our schools, when asked about our culture and what kinds of things our children celebrate, we should take that opportunity to explain about namedays to the class. The teacher could even provide a list of the names of the children in the class and we can try to find a nameday that corresponds to each name. Kids would love to learn their Orthodox nameday! We can even teach the class how to write “Xronia Polla” in Greek. I think our children would be very proud to share this special tradition with their classmates. I can just hear the kids at school telling our kids, “Wow, it is so cool that you get to have a birthday and a nameday! Do you get presents for both?”
2) Vasilopita: Just as my mother brought a Vasilopita to class many years ago, we can also do the same. In a demonstration to the class, we should first tell the children the story of the Vasilopita. I like explaining that the translation of Vasilopita is “Basil’s sweet bread” honoring the saint remembered in this treasured tradition.
There are many versions of how and why Saint Basil put the coins into sweet bread, but the most common story is that he was trying to secretly distribute money to the poor. There is also a special order of the cutting of the bread that is followed: Jesus Christ, the Theotokos, Saint Basil, and the Church or the poor. Then, it is cut for the family members, oldest to youngest. As we demonstrate this in class, we can adapt it by starting with the principal or the teacher, then the classroom, then the oldest student to the youngest. Don’t forget to mention that the person who receives the coin in his bread is said to be blessed in the year ahead.
This is an easy tradition for us to share with others, and if it cannot be done at school, maybe you can invite some of your children’s friends over after the New Year and have a special cutting of the Vasilopita.
3) Breaking Eggs at Pascha: The Greek name for this game is “tsougrisma” meaning clinking together. At a spring event of your child’s class, bring some red hard boiled eggs. Next, explain the rules of breaking Pascha eggs to the students and start playing until the last uncracked egg (and winner) is standing.
We all know how exciting breaking eggs can be in our own house at Pascha each year so the kids at school will definitely enjoy this game. To make it even more fun, offer a prize for the winner. This past Pascha, my son created a throne for the champion egg by turning a styrofoam cup over and poking a hole into the bottom. The champion egg was placed on the throne for everyone to admire.
I know there are many more unique aspects of our faith and culture that we can share with others. I encourage you to keep adding to this list and paying more attention to what we Orthodox celebrate! Let’s make a point of sharing our traditions so our children can be proud and most importantly, so our wonderful traditions live on.
Despina Manatos is the author of The Name Day Book, which can be purchased from the Department of Religious Education. Despina is an English teacher and attends Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church in Toms River, NJ with her husband Nick and their two children, Andy and Katherine.