Greek Carols for the New Year – The Kalanta Tradition


Whether it’s the rosy-cheeked, hair-cropped kiddies of yesteryear clutching traditional Greek instruments 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….

What Are Greece’s New Year’s Carols All About

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 Kaisaria 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.

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 neighbours and friends.

Greek boys carolling in Attica in the 1950s captured by Voula Papaioannou Benaki Museum Archive.

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.

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 Kaisaria.

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.

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 wish here 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 “nice”… in return.

Or even bid that her beauty quickly abandon her or “off to the wolves with you” …

A joyful modern take of the Greek carols from innovative Greek jazzmen Mode Plagal.

 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 not stone crack
and may the landlord live for many years to come.

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 – 2020 – 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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: