You don’t need an alarm clock on Christmas eve in Greece (or New Year’s eve, or even Epiphany in some places). In Greece it is traditional for children to doorstep you for the Κάλαντα (Kálanta) starting at the crack of dawn and continuing almost until noon. The Kálanta is a cross between carol-singing and trick-or-treating. You can expect groups of children, sometimes accompanied by adults, brandishing triangles and other noise-making instruments to sing the traditional song appropriate for each holiday, until you ostentatiously retrieve a stack of coins to reward them.
It is very cute if you are in the right mood, and the kids can be very good and sometimes even musical. If you live in an apartment block you can get a hint as to their merit as they progress up the floors. The quality tends to deteriorate as the morning progresses, as the younger kids tire and the teenagers haul themselves out of bed to make their perfunctory rounds, with their breaking voices and embarrassed shuffling.
It is now more common a parent to accompany their children as they visit friends’ houses only – but when I was as young as six or seven we started out in pairs at dawn, unaccompanied, to knock on total strangers’ doors and sing for money, before hitting the toy shops to spend our loot. Every modern parent’s nightmare.
These days, it is probably Golden Dawn’s worst nightmare too, as you can count on opening the door to at least one group that resembles a Unicef card in its multi-racial harmony.
Because money is involved, the Kálanta can act as a litmus test for peoples’ views on economics and morality. Some people simply hand the money over before the end of the first verse to get it over with as soon as possible before the carolers notice they are still in their pyjamas. This is as if to say, this is a naked economic transaction, if not an outright extortion racket, so let’s not pretend otherwise: I give you money, you give me peace. Others (like my parents) like to test the kids by making them sing at least two verses, to make them “earn” their gratuity. It is sometimes tempting, especially in these hard times, to take the kids aside and explain to them that this is one of the few occasions in life when you can expect to get a handful of cash just for showing up. But that is not the holiday spirit. And once you note the strong correlation between your temptation to moralise and the viciousness of your hangover, you have already talked yourself out of it.
“Real grownups” are less squeamish about using the Kálanta as anything other than a harmless tradition. Every year the country’s political leadership also receives several visits from organised groups, often in traditional regional costume, for what is probably best described as “soft lobbying”. The Kálanta songs with their feudal overtones, addressing the hosts as “lords” (άρχοντες), lend themselves to flattery of power. On occasion, the political Kálanta can be less oblique, particular when local traditions encourage improvisation. The Cretan tradition of μαντινάδες (mantinádes) lends itself particularly to shameless politicking, as when a group of traditionally garbed singers serenaded then PM Antonis Samaras with an anti-austerity ditty, praising his great leadership and calling on him to cut back on the Troika-imposed taxes.
But remember, kids: “This is one of the few occasions in life… ”
Image: from thetoc.gr