Greek Carols for the New Year – The Kalanta Tradition

Whether it’s the rosy-cheeked, hair-cropped kiddies of yesteryear clutching traditional Greek instruments and a boat, or the modern-era iPhone-armed youngsters of today donning the latest Gap wear, Greek children continue to this day – albeit several time-induced changes – to sing the carols, some dating to Byzantine times, on New Year’s Eve.  

As with all traditions in this tiny land brimming with splendid diversity, so do the carols or kalanta differ from region to region, island to island, village to village. As one of my professors once said: “Where there are two Greeks, there will be three opinions.” So you can imagine how this applies to other aspects of Greek life, not to mention carols….

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The central motif is for the most part the same: wishes for love, peace, health, joy and wealth, but depending on the region additional “needs” come forth, such as a safe return home (for the sea-faring), a plentiful bounty (for the farmers), abundance in wine and cheese (for the mountain folk), milk and honey (for the shepherds), and all these goodies are expected in the New Year with a little help from our friend… Agios Vassilis – a Greek (more solemn and much thinner) version of Santa Claus.

In the past, before the late 1980s and the introduction of Western-style (over)consumerism, Greeks offered gifts on New Year’s Day, the day marking “Agios Vassilis’” or St Basil’s name day.

Known as Saint Basil the Great, he was a bishop in Caesarea in Cappadocia – as the carols reveal – who was known mostly for his kindness to the poor and underprivileged. Unlike his rosy-cheeked chubby counterpart in the West, Agios Vassilis was tall, lanky, and thin symbolizing restraint and dedication.

Greek Carols for the New Year - The Kalanta Tradition
Greek boys carolling in Attica in the 1950s captured by Voula Papaioannou Benaki Museum Archive.

So, once the bells toll on New Year’s Eve – nowadays, a bit later in the day due to modernity’s late-night pleasures – youngsters don their smiles, shiny triangles in hand and set off to bring the good news to neighbors and friends.

In the days of old, and again depending on the territory, the carolers would also play the fiddle, the daouli (a traditional deep drum) common in the Macedonia and Thrace region, the ceramic drum, the stringed lagouto or the bagpipe. They would go door to door and after knocking would bid the lady of the house: “Na Ta Poume?” (Should we sing you the carols?”). The mistress would then say “Na Ta Peite” (Please Do…) and so the carolers would chant away their best wishes for the New Year. Once their song was over, she would offer them sweets and coins. And this tradition continues to this day.

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The sheer happiness on the youngsters’ faces even today when they zoom in on the coins in their hands can only be compared to that cross-generational ice cream-eating face. Back then, they would run off to the single kafeneion (coffeehouse-cum-all-purpose shop) in the village to spend it on chocolate or candy. Today, it goes into the piggy bank for a trendy new iPhone case.

The traditional carols from Cyprus announce the start of a New Year on January 1 and ask that everyone follow the bright example of the enlightened one – Agios Vassilios from Caesaria.

From the isle of Ikaria herself, popular singer Eleftheria Arvanitaki performs her island’s version about wine, cheese, silver shelves, and lifelong beauty.

Wishes of Love, Compassion & Kindness

The lyrics to these masterpieces are enlightening, offering the centuries-old wisdom of love, compassion and kindness.

Greek Carols for the New Year - The Kalanta Tradition
Photo from the Benaki Museum Archive

At the same time, today many of the “kalanta” traditions live on in the hearts of many displaced Asia Minor Greeks who were forced to leave their homelands behind. One such example are the Kalanta of Cappadocia. Cappadocia, located in modern-day Turkey, was once the home of a thriving native Greek population. It was also where St Basil was from. With the population exchange in 1923, the native Greeks of Cappadocia were forced to resettle in Greece.

Traditional instrumentalists from Crete sing kalanta wishing plows of silver and a long healthy life.

And should perchance some stingy mistress of the house not find it in her heart to treat the carolers, they would just add a verse or two about ticks and lice and everything (not so) “nice”… in return.

Or even bid that her beauty quickly to abandon her, or better yet, “off to the wolves with you”.

Enjoy here a joyful modern take of the Greek carols from innovative Greek jazzmen Mode Plagal.

I should add that the offering of coins and sweets to the carollers also signifies the exchange of energy. Money as a symbol of wealth is also a form of energy. The symbolism of the Greek New Year’s kalanta is to keep the positive energy flowing through giving and receiving as each person’s vibrational level syncs with the other creating harmony.

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And the wishes for the year ahead in the traditional Greek New Year’s kalanta (carols):

 May the New Year get off to a good start
 And Christ summons us
 to shun wickedness
 and dress ourselves in virtue
 To live a fine life
 to the word of the Gospel
 with love and peace 
 and justice
 May we live many years in glee
 with a clean and pure soul
 with joy and health
 and divine grace
 Give us the rooster, and give us the hen, 
 give us five or six eggs and off we go to another door
 Here, where we’ve sung, let no stone crack
 and may the landlord live for many years to come. 

Greek Carols for the New Year - The Kalanta Tradition

And so my dear friends, The Greek Vibe wishes you all a very happy New Year, with love, kindness, compassion and the brightest light from within…

Let us mark the New Year with a rendering by much-loved Greek artist George Dalaras performing together with the Estoudiantina Neas Ionias ensemble the traditional New Year’s carol: Archiminia ki Archichronia” (New Month & New Year) which beckons us to:

Sit down to eat,

Sit down to drink

Sit down to share your pain

Sit down to sing

And to bring cheer into our hearts.

Kali Hronia to all!

Greek Carols for the New Year - The Kalanta Tradition

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