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Shall we sing? (An article about the Greek carols)

Please note that the Greek version of this essay contains numerous sound excerpts, as well as selected Bibliography and Discography.


On Christmas Eve morning, the bell rings, and the atmosphere is filled with familiar melodies: Christmas Carols. The sound of the flute, or the melodica and sometimes only a simple triangle accompany the children’s caroling. The chanting culminates in various ways of wishing a long life to the landlord and his family. The lady of the house offers small amounts of money for the children’s piggy bank. In the country, kids are offered traditional sweets of the season, almonds and fruits.


Christmas signals the advent of 12 holidays also known as Dodecameron, which ends on Epiphany Day. On the eve of the most noted holidays such as Christmas, and Epiphany, children sing special carols for each holiday. What are these carols and how they have evolved into their present form?


The Greek word Kalanda (carols), derives from the Latin calendae, which means the first day of the month. In Ancient Greece, there were various texts comparable to the contemporary Kalanda, which contained praises for the landlord and good wishes for the prosperity of the household. At that time, children sang carols while carrying boat models in honor of the God Dionyssos. Sometimes they carried branches of olive or laurel upon which they hung their tips and gratuities.


From the second half of the 2nd century B.C. the beginning of the New Year was celebrated on the first days of January. According to a tradition, Rome was once rescued by three brothers, Kalandos, Nonnos and Eidos who undertook the feeding of its inhabitants. The first one undertook the first twelve days and was named Kalandas, the second undertook the following 10 days, which were called Nonnas and the third one the last eight days, which were named Eidous. Gradually, the two latter holidays were overshadowed by the first, which was retained as a major holiday in the Greek calendar. The other two were to be forgotten a long time before the onset of the Christian holidays. In the first years of Christianity, the Kalanda, (carols) were prompted by the need to narrate the meaning of the holidays and the traditions surrounding them.


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The holidays of the Dodecameron

When Constantine the First ascended the Byzantine throne, he tried to find common points between Christian and pagan holidays, so that their substitution may be smooth. As a result, Christmas was placed on the 25th of December, substituting for the Day of the Invincible Sun or otherwise Mithra, which symbolized the increase of daylight. New Year’s Day was set for January 1, following the feast of the calends and Epiphany on January 6, the day on which the Birth of the God of Time was observed in Alexandria.


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The form elements of the Kalanta refer to those of folk songs both in music and lyrics. Their lyrics narrate the religious facts of the day (Chrismas, New Year’s and Epiphany) with a vocabulary both literary and popular.

Christmas carols narrate the facts surrounding the birth of Christ and the Homage of the Magi. The well-known text that is still sung nowadays is the following, with the first two or three stanzas being the most popular.

Καλήν εσπέραν (ή «καλήν ημέραν») άρχοντες,
κι αν είναι ορισμός σας,
Χριστού την θείαν Γέννησιν
να μπω στ' αρχοντικό σας.

Χριστός γεννάται σήμερον
εν Βηθλεέμ τη πόλει,
οι ουρανοί αγάλλονται
χαίρετ' η φύσις όλη.

Εν τω σπηλαίω τίκτεται
εν φάτνη των αλόγων 
ο Βασιλεύς των ουρανών
και Ποιητής των όλων.


Christmas carols are sung all over the country and are distinguished by several regional versions such as carols from Aigina, Thrace, Crete, Samos, Cyprus, Cycladic islands, Byzantium and the carols of Pontos. With individual wordings and melodies, they offer their own viewpoint of Christ’s Birth, which is their central theme. Invariably Christmas carols praise the home, and the family with good wishes for the household and its prosperity.

The New Year’s Eve carols sing the passing from the Winter to the Spring equinox and the coming of Saint Basil of Caesaria (the Santa Claus in the Catholic church)

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,
χαρτί και καλαμάρι,
δες και με το παληκάρι




Last, in the Epiphany’s eve carolers sung the carols which praise the Baptize of Jesus. The first Christians stayed sleepless all night long holding lighted candles and waiting for the coming Illuminance. Thus stems the word Epiphany or else Fota which means illumination.

Σήμερα τα φώτα κι ο φωτισμός
η χαρά μεγάλη κι ο αγιασμός.
Κάτω στον Ιορδάνη τον ποταμό
κάθετ' η κυρά μας η Παναγιά.
'Οργανoβαστάει, κερί κρατεί
και τον Αϊ-Γιάννη παρακαλεί.
'Αϊ-Γιάννη αφέντη και βαπτιστή
βάπτισε κι εμένα Θεού παιδί.
Ν' ανεβώ στον ουρανό
να μαζέψω ρόδα και λίβανο.

Epiphany is the third and last holiday of the Dodecameron, the day of Catharsis of Nature and purification of people’s souls. Epiphany was first established in the 2nd century A.D., in Egypt. It is not certain when it was adopted by the Eastern Christian Orthodox Church. It is well known, however, that in the 4th century, Christmas, Christ’s Baptism and the first miracle were all celebrated together in the town of Kana in Gallilee. During this period, Epiphany was gradually adopted as a holiday by the Western churches with Rome being the last.


Epiphany marks the closing of the holidays of the Dodecameron. The predominant element during this period is the festive atmosphere transmitted throughout by the Kalanda. In present days, however, this atmosphere tends to be forgotten. On the one hand, carolers are becoming fewer and on the other people don’t open their door so readily nor are willing to listen to the entire pieces. Many times, with the phrase “others have sung carols before you”, we drive carolers away not realizing that we are not only closing the door on them but, at the same time, we are also shutting the door on one of the oldest customs of our people. Christmas is approaching! If our doorbell rings, let us open the door and let us listen and enjoy the Kalanda! The New Year will surely be better!



Please note that the Greek version of this essay contains numerous sound excerpts, as well as selected Bibliography and Discography.


Marina Nikolakopoulou

Αθήνα 25-11-2003

Επιστροφή στην αρχή

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