Cakes, especially those with a coin hidden inside, are considered lucky, for the person who gets the coin and everyone else who shares a slice. Round cakes or breads symbolize wholeness and the completion of a full year’s cycle.
In Greece, there’s Vasilopita (St. Basil's cake), a round bread with a coin hidden inside. 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 life, liberty, health, and happiness.
Traditionally, the 1st piece is set aside for Christ, the 2nd piece for Theotokos (Mary, mother of Jesus), the 3rd piece for St Basil, and the 4th piece for the poor. Then pieces are given to all present, beginning with the eldest and ending with youngest. He or she who receives the piece containing the coin is traditionally considered to be especially blessed for the New Year.
They are said to have been first eaten by Germanic tribes in the Netherlands during the Yule. The Germanic goddess Perchta, together with evil spirits, would fly through the mid-winter sky. To appease these spirits, food was offered, much of which contained deep-fried dough. It was said Perchta would try to cut open the bellies of all she came across, but because of the fat in the oliebollen, her sword would slide off the body of whoever ate them.
In Italy, a sweet bread or cake like a panetonne or a torciglione is sliced and served to all as a symbol of hope and prosperity.
In Scotland, after the firing of the guns at midnight, men go house to house for the “first footing,” when they were offered a bannock (oat cake) and whiskey.
The classic King Cake is round (the shape of a crown), with a small baby hidden inside. The baby is hidden to represent the fact that the three kings had a difficult time finding the Christ child and of the gifts they brought. The decoration is simple granulated sugar, colored purple, green, and gold (the colors of Carnival). Purple represents justice, green represents faith, and gold represents power.
Whatever your traditions, we recommend ringing in 2012 with cake. That's what we'll be doing.