Greek Santa Claus

After a period of impetuous weather, suddenly the sun appeared for a few days causing bright clear views, where mountain and hilltops strongly contrasted against a cobalt blue sky. These are the beautiful winter days where dew dresses the trees in glistening coats and when amidst the pine trees there is the pure scent of Christmas trees.

There are quite extended pinewoods on Lesvos and you may be thinking that those pine trees would end up in Greek homes as a Christmas tree. But let’s face it: pine trees are not fir trees, which, with their close knit branches, are excellent trees for Christmas. Fir trees are rare on the island and the tradition of having a decorated Christmas tree is not widely known in Greece and has competition from another traditional Christmas decoration: the Christmas Boat (karavaki).

The Christmas Tree in Greece was introduced by the from Bavaria native Greek King Otto, who had his palace in 1833 decorated with fir trees. Greeks never have been too enthusiastic about their kings (The last King had officially to throw down his scepter in 1973) and that may be a reason why there are not too many songs about the Christmas tree in Greece. The sole song that I found about this so praised tree of the Christmas Season is a heavy but also funny hardrock version of O, Tannenbaum (O, Christmas Tree) from Plokami tou Karcharia: O peuko.

The Christmas Boat has a much longer history in Greece. It is said that it is the boat that brought Dionysus in December, the month where in ancient times this God of parties and wine was much celebrated. Also Saint Nicholas has his much celebrated name day in December (December 5). This bishop, originally coming from Antalya (Turkey), is now the patron saint of seafarers and his ship is a popular symbol. Decorating the Christmas Boat may also derive from a very simple tradition: when the sailors (and there are many in Greece) returned home for Christmas their wife and children decorated a little boat to welcome him.

For hundreds of years on Christmas Eve children go around the Greek villages to sing Christmas carols, kálanda, for the more prosperous people, for which they are rewarded with dried fruit, sweets and – nowadays – with money. Along with instruments like a triangle or drum, they carry a little wooden ship. There might have been a candle in the boat to light the way, or it was used as storage for the sweet they got.

It is said that these Greek Christmas carols were already being sung in Homeric times (then they were called Eiresioni) to celebrate Dionysus’ arrival by boat. Nowadays the kálanda are about Christmas, New Year or Epiphany (January 6). Here is a kálanda from Mytilini, not performed by children but a choir of adults, accompanied by beautiful instrumental music: Κάλαντα Μυτιλήνης – Καππαδοκίας. The next singer may have been in a hurry, waiting for a glass of ouzo, giving it an extra dimension (including a beautiful picture of children singing a kálanda): Κάλαντα Χριστουγέννων από τη Λέσβο. These songs do not always have to be sung so quickly, listen to the gentlemen from Kalloni who are not in a rush singing Καλαντα πρωτοχρονιας ‘Καλλονησ Λεσβου’.

During the last century foreign Christmas songs also sneaked into Greece. Helena Paparizo as well as Anna Vissi sing the originally Austrian religious song Silent Night: Agia Nixta and Agia Nuxta. Since the Fifties, American Christmas songs became very popular and in Greece they are mainly sung by children, especially when there are things like a snowman involved: Frosty the snowman. Rudolph, the reindeer with the red nose has been taken a bit more seriously: Ρουντολφ το ελαφακι has been honoured with a song by both Kaiti Garbi and Thanos Kalliris (although I personally prefer the Swedish version of Rudolph songs like: Rudolf med den røde tudd). Kaiti Garbi even published a CD full of translated Christmas Songs (Χριστούγεννα με την Καίτη) amongst others Ο χειμώνας ο βαρύς (Winter Wonderland) and Χριστός Γεννάται (Sleigh ride). Thanos Kalliris has his own Christmas song Ta Xristougenna Me Sena…, but also sings the American classic O Ai Basilis Pali Tha ‘rthei (Santa Claus is coming to town).

Realizing that in the sunny Greek Islands you can enjoy a warm sun outside until deep into wintertime, it may be difficult to imagine that there are also Greeks (and me) who are dreaming of a White Christmas (Χριστούγεννα λευκά), just like Dakis and Jorgos Stafanakis.

Present singers however not only sing Christmas covers but have their own Christmas songs. For example Stergios Kottas who uses his attractive smoky voice for a real Greek Christmas Tearjerker:Αυτα τα χριστουγεννα. Fifos Delivorias sings his Christmas song like all his other ones: when you do not understand the text you may even not be aware it is a Christmas song: Χριστούγεννα. Like in all other countries, also in Greece, you have these totally trashy songs like the one from Effi Sarri who sings Xristoygenna protoxronia: not only the song but also the video is huge Christmas-trash. Last but not least, a real swinging Greek hiphop song: Imiskoubia with Τα Χριστούγεννα σημαίνουν…

I love Christmas music, I probably got that from my brother who is a serious  collector of Christmas songs. Each year he gives me a new Christmas-CD with his newest finds, containing beautiful, crazy or humorous covers and new songs. Listening to Christmas songs not only makes you sentimental, but can be hugely entertaining. When you are done with all those famous songs, do something different! Here are some Greek versions that may make you laugh: a radio broadcast of the Christmas hit All I want for Christmas is you

Obviously Last Christmas by Wham is also was pretty popular in Greece. The first parody is a real Greek Christmas Shepherd Blues about a shepherd who could no longer pay his taxes and the government took his sheep away, so he was all alone for Christmas: Pindo’s nightingale. Also HipHopcrecy made a very merry and swishing song out of Wham’s Christmas hit: LaST ChriStMaS, a modern fairy tale with an entertaining video. 

Have fun listening!