Greek Santa Claus (A & L: http://www.aandlhome.com/servlet/-strse-3680/Greece-Santa-Glass-Chrstmas/Detail)
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
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 singingΚαλαντα πρωτοχρονιας ‘Καλλονησ Λεσβου’.
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 DakisandJorgos Stafanakis.
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 singsXristoygenna 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 seriouscollector 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 hitAll 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
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
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 donkey’s 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
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
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. You’d 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
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?