The Story of the Kalanta

We all know the Kalanta, but where did the word for these songs come from?


 

Kalanta are the Greek carols sung at Christmas and at New Year’s. There are different versions for each of those days. Traditionally, children, with no accompaniment or simply a triangle, sing them. Children would go from house to house and sing the Kalanta, however, in the diaspora, the Kalanta are now often sung at church, at Greek school, and at family celebrations.

               

Origin of the Word

According to the Music Library of Greece, Lilian Voudouri, compiled by the Friends of Music Society, the word Kalanta (carols) is rooted in the Latin calendae meaning the first day of the month. Some say that in ancient times, there were texts comparable to today’s Kalanta. Those songs contained praises for the landlord and wishes for prosperity for the household. In those days, children were to carry boat models in honor of the god Dionysios while singing Kalanta. Some carried olive branches or laurel to hang the tips they received as they processed.

 

Another story of Kalanta

The Friends of Music Society also mentions that since the second half of the 2nd century BC, the New Year was commemorated on the first day of January. Another legend has it that 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 holidays (Christmas and Epiphany) fell during the Kalantas time, and gradually the other two were forgotten. By the early years of Christianity, the Kalantas were prompted by the need to tell the meaning of the holidays and the traditions surrounding them.

 

Google Images
Google Images

 

 

Christmas Kalanta

This carol proclaims Jesus’ birth and speaks of the visiting Magi.

 

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.

 

Phonetic pronunciation:

Kalin esperon arhontes

Ki an einai orismos sas

Hristou tin thean yennisin

Na po st’arhontiko sas.

Hristos yennatai simeron

En Veethle’em ti poli

I ourani ayallontai

Hairet’i fysis oli.

En to spilaion teektetai

En fatni ton alogon

O Vasilefs ton ouranon

Kai pee’eetees ton olon.

 

English Translation:

Good evening, noble folk.

If you so command,

I will tell your noble household

Of the birth of Christ.

Today Christ is born in Bethlehem

And the heavens rejoice

Along with all of nature.

 

(English translation from A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America, by Marilyn Rouvelas.)

 

New Year’s Kalanta

This carol announces the passing from the Winter to the Spring equinox and 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

 

Phonetic Pronunciation:

Arhiminia ki arhihronia

Psili mou dendrolivania

Ki arhi kalos mas hronis

Ekklisia me t’ayio throno.

Arhi pou vyike o Hristos

Ayios ka pnevmatikos

Sti yee na perpatisei

Ka na mas kalokardisei.

Ayios Vasilis erhetai

Kai olous mas katadehetai

Amo tin Kaisaria

S’eis’arhontissa kyria.

Vastaei ikona ka harti

zaharokantiozimoti

harti kai kalamari

des kai me to palikari

 

English Translation:

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.

 

(English translation from A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America, by Marilyn Rouvelas.)

 

Epiphany Carol

There’s even a carol for Epiphany, typically sung on the evening prior. The Friends explain that the first Christians stayed awake all night holding lighted candles and wait for the coming Illuminance. Thus, we obtain 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

                                                   .

Phonetic Pronunciation

Simera ta fota ki o fotismos

I hara megali ki o ayiasmos

Kato ston Iordani ton potamo

Kathe’ I kyra mas Panayia

Organobastaei, keri kratei

Kai ton Ay Yianni parakalei

Ay Yianni afenti kai vaptsiti

N’anevo ston ourano

Na mazepso roda kai livano.

 

English Translation

Epiphany has come – illumination of the world

and great rejoicing in the Lord.

By Jordan River, stands our good Mary

and thus she begs St. John –

“St. John Baptist –

it is in your power – to baptize the child of God.”

 

(English translation from A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America, by Marilyn Rouvelas.)

 

Kai tou hronou! (And once again next year!)


 

Pick up a copy of Marilyn Rouvelas’ A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America on Amazon. Makes a great gift!


 

This article was originally written and published in 2006.

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