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The Changing of the ‘Kalanta’: A History of Traditional Greek New Year’s Songs

January 7, 2023
By Anastasia Kaliabakos

When I attended elementary school at the Cathedral School at Holy Trinity Cathedral Manhattan many years ago, it was an annual tradition to put on a performance full of skits, dancing, and singing around the holiday season. I vividly remember these plays and had a lot of fun with my friends preparing for them. One aspect of the performances I was always fond of was the singing. To this day, I love to sing, and I still remember a lot of the music I learned many years ago. This includes many of the traditional Greek carols, or ‘Kalanta’, that I sang in school and in my time with the Metropolitan Youth choir as a girl.

The Kalanta are a variety of traditional Greek carols sung at Christmas and New Year’s, and there are different versions of songs. They are traditionally sung by children, who would go from house to house in villages and cities in Greece. Nowadays, the Kalanta are often sung in churches, at Greek school, and at larger family celebrations, but like other caroling groups, the children still go door to door and ask if they can sing for each household. Once they are given permission, the children sing with triangles as their main accompaniment. After the performance, those in the house listening may give the youth singers some sweets, traditional Christmas cookies, or money.

The singing of these carols in Greece can be traced back to ancient times. The word ‘kalanta’ has etymological roots in the Latin word calendae, which refers to the first day of the month. However, an obscure legend might explain the roots of the Kalanta. According to the WindyCity Greek Magazine, “three brothers, Kalantos, Nonnos, and Eidos, rescued Rome, and fed its inhabitants. Kalantos fed them for the first 12 days. Nonnos fed them for the next eight days, and Eidos fed them for eight days after that. Therefore, the first 12 days of the month were said to be ‘Kalantas’, the next eight ‘Nonnas’, and the final eight as ‘Eidous’.

The two major Christian holidays (Christmas and Epiphany) fell during the Kalantas time, and gradually the other two were forgotten. By the early years of Christianity, the Kalanta were prompted by the need to tell the meaning of the holidays and the traditions surrounding them.”

There is evidence that suggests that even in antiquity, there were songs comparable to today’s Kalanta that actually were written to praise the Greek god Dionysus. This particular Greek god is known for his relationship to wine and revelry, but he was also significant to ancient peoples as a patron of the arts.

According to custom, children were required to carry boat models (called a ‘karavaki’) in his honor while singing the Kalanta. They also would carry olive branches and laurel while they walked from home to home collecting tips for their singing. However, with the spread of Christianity through Greece, the custom of caroling began to focus on celebrating the birth of Christ, New Year’s, and the Epiphany, which closes out the 12 days of Christmas.

Here is an example of a Kalanta carol that announces the arrival of St. Basil:

Αρχιμηνιά κι αρχιχρονιά, ψιλή μου δενδρολιβανιά,
κι αρχή καλός μας χρόνος, εκκλησιά με τ’ άγιο θρόνο.
Αρχή που βγήκε ο Χριστός, άγιος και πνευματικός
στη γη να περπατήσει και να μας καλοκαρδίσει.
‘Αγιος Βασίλης έρχεται και όλους μας καταδέχεται
από την Καισαρεία σ’εισ’αρχόντισσα κυρία.
Βαστάει εικόνα και χαρτί, ζαχαροκαντιοζύμωτη χαρτί και καλαμάρι,
δες και με το παληκάρι

Translation by Marilyn Rouvelas:
It’s the start of the month/And the start of the year.
Oh, my tall rosemary tree/And the start of a happy new year.
St. Basil is coming/As you noblemen know/ From Caesaria
You, my lady, are a noblewoman

The Kalanta have earned a place in the hearts of Greek visual artists as well. In 1872, Nikiforos Lytras, an artist who is considered the patriarch of modern Greek painting, made a piece titled ‘The Kalanda’. To this day, it remains one of the most famous paintings in the history of modern Greek art and is widely shared on social media during the holiday season. The painting depicts a diverse group of children in the clothing style of the late 19th century. They are shown playing traditional Greek instruments and singing the Kalanta in the courtyard of a house. A mother and child stand in the window, listening to the carolers in the yard. A statue depicted at the bottom of the painting highlights Lytras’ own fondness of marble sculpting, as that was his father’s profession. ‘The Kalanda’ emphasizes Lytras’ education in the art of ‘Academic Realism’, which included producing artwork that was very exact in terms of color and narrative mood. At the start of his career, he worked on historical paintings and was also often inspired by stories from Greek mythology. As he gained more experience, and returned to Greece after studying in Germany, he started to paint scenes from everyday life. His goal in his art was to “move, delight, and educate the people,” which he does successfully in The Kalanda.

Anastasia ‘Stacey’ Kaliabakos is a current senior and Dana Scholar at the College of the Holy Cross and a graduate of The Brearley School. She is double majoring in classics and philosophy and is a member of the college’s Honors Program. Anastasia has been featured in NEO Magazine and The National Herald.

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