St. Basil (330-379)
royal and is a very common name in Greece. The English equivalent is Basil,
perhaps the most famous one being Basil Fawlty, and many Greeks by this name
sometimes call themselves Bill or Billy in English. The female form is Vasiliki
and the nickname is often Vasso. The saint behind this name is Saint Vasilios
(Basileus) and he was one of the Three Hierarchs, or Church Fathers, of Christianity.
The main church of Skiathos is named after
them and here you will find many icons of St. Basil, St. Gregory and St. John.
St. Basil is also "Ai-Vasilis" or Father Christmas to the Greeks and this
is why Greek children traditionally get presents on New Years Eve, as St.
Basil is celebrated on January 1 (his death day).
St. Basil came from Cappadocia (today's Turkey) and was born to a wealthy, Christian family where several members were saints. For example, his grandfather had died a martyr's death, his grandmother was St. Macrina, the patron of widows, and four of his siblings were later canonised. Coming from a rich family, young St. Basil was very well educated and he studied law and rhetoric in both Constantinople and Athens. His class-mate and best friend was St. Gregory, another of the Three Hierarchs, and they remained close for their whole lives. At one point, their fellow student was Julian the Apostate who obviously was not too impressed with the new religion; when he came to power he persecuted and killed many Christians, amongst others St. Reginos of Skopelos, who was executed for refusing to return to the old gods.
When St. Basil was 27 he was baptised and decided to stop being a lawyer. Instead, he went on a life-altering journey to the Middle East where he tried to live an ascetic life, which unfortunately ended up ruining his health. The strict diet damaged his liver so badly that he died before reaching 50. Meeting and living with the monks and hermits in Palestine and Egypt made a deep impression on St. Basil and when he returned home, he founded a monastery near the Black Sea. Although he did agree with the austere life a monk must lead, St. Basil also believed that this, in excess, could border on self-obsession and come dangerously close to hubris, and therefore stated that hard work and studies were just as important and that a monk should find a balance between the two. This inspired and altered monastic life to such a degree, that St. Basil today is considered the father of communal monasticism.
At the age of 40 St. Basil became a bishop and quite a difficult one too. One of the interesting aspects is his personality: whilst fellow saints such as St. Nicholas and St. Spyridon were described as mild-mannered and humble, St. Basil could be very temperamental and argumentative. He especially disliked priests who acquired personal property and civil servants who did not do their job properly. As he had been a lawyer, he was very well versed in the order of things and knew how to present his case against corrupt judges and their unfair trials and he also disapproved of church officials using pompous language to seem holier than thou. This, of course, made him unpopular with the powers that ruled and the Emperor banished him several times, with little success, one might add, as St. Basil was popular with the people.
On the other hand, St. Basil was very generous and gave away much of his fortune to the poor. He was the first one to found a public hospital and a poorhouse and he used to organise soup-kitchens when famine struck. One of his main missions in life was to convert thieves and prostitutes and he would often defend those that had been treated unfairly by the authorities. In Greece Vasilopita, Basil's pie, is baked for the New Year. It is a symbol of St. Basil's acts of charity towards the poor in times of food shortages and a coin is always hidden in it. The pie is cut in several pieces: one for St. Basil, one for Christ, one for the house and one for each family member. Whoever gets the coin gets fortune for the coming year. It is also St. Basil's many good deeds that have made him the Orthodox Father Christmas, rather than St. Nicholas. St. Basil is also the patron saint of hospital workers as well as the protector of teachers.
In icons, St. Basil is depicted as a thin, dark haired man as he died quite young. He has a long, two-pointed beard and he wears a Bishop's robe and carries the Holy Scriptures in one hand. On Skiathos, there are two churches dedicated to him: on in Kastro and the other is the Church of the Three Hierarchs, the main church in town.
The herb Basil is named so not because of the saint, but rather because of its etymology (royal). Legend has it that St. Helen found the Holy Cross because Basil grew on the spot and so, Basil represents Christ the King. Orthodox priests often sprinkle Holy Water with Basil leaves and it is perhaps no coincidence that this has become a symbol of love and faith as opposed to the pagan, ancient Greek belief that it was a symbol of hate.
For more about the Church of the Three Hierarchs, see our book "Exploring Skiathos Town - with Three Suggested walks".