Wednesday, 17 December 2014

December 15 – Greek Christmas carols

Greek Santa Claus (A & L:

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 sceptre 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 Chrismas 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!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Saturday, 6 December 2014

December 4 – About black little bullies and pirates

(Barbarossa of Lesvos; Photo: internet)

In Holland, December 5, the name day of Saint Nicholas, is a big celebration day especially for children. On this day they receive lots of presents and candy, distributed by Saint Nicholas (who somewhat resembles Santa Claus) and his black valets: the Black Petes. Because of the Dutch past as slave traders, since last year there have been big discussions in Holland about the skin colour of Black Pete. Because he is the valet, people no longer want him to be black.

Last week, visiting a Greek friend, I thought I saw a puppet picturing a Black Pete hanging on the chimney. When I looked at it closely it indeed had a black face but looked more like a troll. I completely forgot that, similar to the Black Petes in Holland, in December in Greece there are also creatures entering houses through the chimney: the kallikantzaros.

These are little monsters which live underground where they try to cut down the world tree. At Christmas, when they are nearly done with their job, they are allowed to come above ground and they love that so much that they forget all about the world tree. However they have to be careful with water, fire, light and a cross. At Epiphany on January 6, soon as the priests bless the sea, rivers and other waters the kallikantzaros return underground, where they discover that the world tree has become renewed and they have to start sawing the tree all over.

Kallikantzaros are a kind of black gnome, but they may also have goat legs, a donkeys tail or other animal aspects. What they enjoy most is to spoil food or drinks, haunt houses and frighten people by moving furniture and so on.
There are different ways in which to keep those little bullies outside the house: lighting a fire in the fireplace and keep it lit throughout the night (in some regions they even lay a special log in the fireplace that keeps burning for days). You can put a black cross on your front door or hang a sieve or a bundle of flax at the front door (Kallikantzaros love to count, but only up to two; this way you keep them busy outside).
 A child born on Christmas Day means real trouble, because a Christmas child can change into a Kallikantzaros. The way to protect it is to cover the poor baby with garlic.

As far as I know there are no people in Greece who care about how a kallikantzaros looks. There are regional variations, but they are mostly black. Greece however has no past with black slaves. Most slaves in ancient Greece were white and even also Greek. Since the ancient times there were slaves in Greece, because where there was war, there was looting and along with expensive goods, taking the losing people as slaves was common practice. It was like that in those times all over the world and so ancient Greek writers and philosophers did not see harm in it. During the Roman Empire slavery was booming and in each town you could find a slave market. After Rome, the biggest market was in Ephesus (now in Turkey, near the shores opposite Samos) and the Greek island of Delos was also known for its slave market.

The first Gattilusio who took power over Lesvos originally was a pirate. One century later the last Gattilusio of the Italian family reigning over Lesvos murdered his brother to become ruler, but that did not bring him luck: a little later, in 1462, the Ottoman Empire conquered the island and he and his family were taken to Constantinople as slaves.

Pirates were already known in Roman times, but from the 16th century piracy became a serious plague around the Mediterranean, because of political chaos in North Africa; small Berber communities no longer listened to the sultans and started seafaring, attacking ships and looting the coasts. The biggest booty was the people taken back to North Africa as slaves. The historian Robert C. Davies has calculated that from the 16th until the 19th century, in the area around Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis only, there must have been 1 to 1.25 million slaves (in contrast to about half a million African people captured as slaves and transported to America)

The pirates around the Mediterranean were known as the Barbary corsairs. After many sea battles and attacks on the pirate settlements (the biggest and last one being Algiers) sea powers like England, Spain, France, Holland and the just founded United States (see: Barbary Wars) managed around 1830 to get the coasts and the sea safe.

Corsairs not only came from the Ottoman Empire or from Africa. Youd better not have bumped into the Englishman Jack Ward, or the Dutchmen Simon de Danser (Zymen Danseker) or Ivan Dirkie de Veenboer (Sulayman Reis). However, the most notorious pirates came from Lesvos: Oruç and Hizir Hayreddin, better known as the brothers Barbarossa. This did not mean that the inhabitants of Lesvos did not have to fear the corsairs. Also in Mytilini there used to be a slave market, and as on all Greek islands nobody was crazy enough to live at the seaside in an unprotected village. Possibly the people in Petra thought they were safe because of their Maria-Glikofiloussa church. In 1675 the French corsair Hugo de Crevellier visited this little village and not only left it in ruins but also took 500 villagers and sold them on as slaves. The Taxiarchis Monastery of Mandamados also was once attacked by pirates, but the story goes that the monks were murdered and the sole survivor created an icon with mud and the blood of his brothers, an icon now still is said to provide miracles.

Pirates have of course nothing to do with Christmas, nor with kallikantzaros. Although, when you look at an etching of Barbarossa, he could have been a big kallikantzaros, or even a Black Pete. The difference between the slavery around the Mediterranean and in America was that in America most were black slaves, but in Europe it were mostly white Christians who became the slaves of the darker muslims. May that be a reason why the kallikantzaroi are little black men?

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014