Na ta poúme? May we sing the carols (cálanda)? (This is the catch phrase at the lips of every carol singer asking permission to sing the carols).
Carols relate to our childhood’s most tender memories. Far from an integral part of Christmas holidays, their custom associates with young children more than anything else.
Their connection to the Greek Antiquity, the ban on them during the Byzantine era and their final expansion ever since Otto’s kingship as an integral part of the Dodecámeron, including the feasts of Christmas, New Year’s Day and Epiphany, weaves through the historical traces below.
What are carols about?
But what are carols about and how did they evolve into their present-day form?
Folklore scholars refer to customary, popular songs chanted by young children and adult men on the eve of Christianity’s three major feasts. Carol singers stroll either alone or in groups (among friends, schoolmates, members of associations and choirs) visiting houses, shops, public areas, and so on, accompanied by a traditional music triangle, as well as other instruments.
Carols usually begin with greetings, go on with announcing the upcoming major Christian feast to end up with wishes. The form of Greek language they are sung is typical of the Byzantine Ages, showcasing immediate connection to the Byzantium and January’s calends celebrated in great splendor.
Carols’ verses narrate historical facts in the form of myth and refer to a series of popular customs and legends, such as the kallikántzaroi. This is a way for carol singers to wish for good health, joy, happiness, fortune, success and good harvest to those they visit.
The custom of carols in Greece
Carols are the only custom to be still fully preserved throughout the country – both the mainland and the islands – in countless versions (approximately 30 recorded) and adaptations to each area’s local aspects (national or urban, local or traditional). Today, except for traditional carols, various Anglo-Saxon Christmas songs prevail, among which some have been versed in Greek and are often sung, along with traditional ones.
Carols and Christmas trees in … Antiquity and the Byzantium
The word cálanda derives from the Latin word “calenda”, standing for the “beginning of month” and referring to January’s New Year’s Day launched during the Roman years (2nd century BC) in lieu of March.
Historians believe they are linked to a hymn chanted by children in Antiquity during the feast of Εiresióni (from the word είρος– έριον, meaning “wool”) and the custom to carry about a branch of olive tree or wild olive tree (cótinos) adorned with garlands made of white and red wool and the first autumn fruits (figs, nuts, almonds, chestnuts and cereals, except for apples and pears) hanging over, as well as bottles full of oil and honey. This custom was part of the well-known Athenian feast Pyanepsia or Pyanopsia to honor Apollo (sacrificing fruits and nuts to protect sowing and harvest).
Eiresióni was carried about the streets on the seventh day of the Pyanepsian month (September 22 – October 20) by children born by the same parents (step brothers and sisters were excluded) who chanted in houses and were tipped by the house lord, while they subsequently went back to their homes to hung it above their front door, burning the previous one that had remained hung throughout the year!
Byzantium’s theocratic state, condemned the custom as paganist and forbade the ritual. Nevertheless, the Greeks who were avid travelers, transferred the custom to Northern populations who, lacking in olive trees, adorned branches of trees endemic to their regions, such as spruce trees.
In later centuries it was re-introduced in Greece by the Bavarians who accompanied King Otto to our country as a custom pertaining to their own Christmas tradition! Thus, the olive tree of the antique Eiresióni morphed into the modern era spruce tree, first-decorated in 1833 at the palace of Nauplia, setting aside nautical Greece’s symbol, the boat, which had become customary in the meantime.
It should be noted that carols survived through the Byzantium, while the Christian world absorbed them superficially, significantly altering their original character. Tipping, though, remained unchanged throughout centuries. Today it is a symbolic sum of money for new year’s good fortune or to the public benefit, while in previous times food used to be offered (sweets, pies, almonds, nuts, pomegranates), a habit still occurring in rural areas.
In the past, finally, those who sang carols also held a paper replica of a boat resonating to Antiquity’s boat of Anthesteria, which symbolized the coming of Dionysus (God of vegetation, wine, joy and exhilaration), summoning for fruition and good harvest.
Carols of the Dodecámeron
Christmas carols are a praise of Jesus Christ’s holy birth, narrated in these verses:
‘’Kalin esperan arhontes ki an ine orismos sas
Hristou ti Thian Genisin na po st’ arhontiko sas.
Hristos genate simeron en Vithleem ti poli,
I ourani agalonte, heri I fisis oli.
En to spileo tiktete en fatni ton alogon
O Vassilefs ton ouranon kai Piitis ton olon’’.
Carols for the New Year’s Day are rather odd, not seemingly resonating the feast, except for Saint Basil. Legend has it that it is a love story that dates back in the Middle Years when people of lower social origins shouldn’t discuss with the noble, at the exception of singing to them during holidays: a young man of humble origin calls a noble girl “tall rosemary tree” because she was dressed in then-fashionable tall, conic hats and compares her to a church’s dome. He wonders why she is distant, while he perceives her as made of sugar.
Modern verses are altered, though, and the song’s hidden story is foregone, emphasizing on the leading actor… Saint Basil (Agios Vassilis), ignoring the original meaning of the verses that are listed with those that prevailed:
‘’Arhiminia ki Arhihronia, ‘’Arhiminia ki Arhihronia,
Psili mou dendrolivania Psili mou dendrolivania
Ki arhi kalos mas hronos Ki arhi kalos mas hronos
Ekklisia me t’ agio tholo. Ekklisia me t’ agio throno.
Agios Vassilis erhete Arhi pou vgike o Hristos
Ke de mas katadehete Agios ke pnevmatikos,
Apo tin Kessaria Sti gi na perpatisi
Si s’arhontisa kiria. Ke na mas kalokardisi.
Vastai pena ke harti Agios Vassilis erhete,
Zaharokadio zimoti Ki olous mas katadehete,
Harti ke kalamari Apo tin Kessaria,
Des ke me, des ke me to palikari’’ Sy’ se arhontisa kiria.
Vasta ikona ke harti
Harti ke kalamari
Des ke me to palikari’’
Lastly, Epiphany’s carols conclude the twelve days’ feasts:
‘’Simera ta Fota ki o fotismos
I hara megali ki o agiasmos
Kato ston Iordani ton potamo
Kathet’ I kira mas, I Panagia
Organo vastaei, keri krati
Ke ton Ai Gianni parakali
Ai Gianni afedi ke vaptisti
Vaptise ki emena Theou pedi
N’ anevo epano ston ourano
Na mazepso roda ke libano’’