The Kallikantzaroi, according to Greek folklore, are malevolent creatures that emerge from the underworld during the Greek Christmas period and cause trouble for humans.
During the winter solstice, when the movement of the sun seems to halt, they creep out: the malicious, mischievous, ugly and naughty creatures called Kallikantzaroi – Καλικάτζαροι. They might be likened to leprechauns, vengeful goblins, or pixies in other European folk beliefs.
Alongside fascinating tales of creatures like the Kallikantzaroi, Greek folklore is still today characterized by superstition and mystery. The book “Journeys Through Greek Superstition” explores everything from the dreaded evil eye to the art of interpreting coffee grounds – fascinating reading for the curious and perfect as a gift to the interested.
In Greece, Kallikantzaroi are depicted as gruesome and scary human-like creatures, often with strong animal traits. Many of them have tusks, tails and goat claws for feet. They are hairy, ugly, dirty and smelly, usually small in stature but sometimes as large as donkeys or horses.
Kallikantzaroi are also portrayed as extremely nimble with winding bodies and tentacle-like limbs. They have the ability to creep into the houses at night through chimneys, doors left ajar, small gaps in walls or even through keyholes.
Stirring up mischief in the households
Once indoors, they cause a lot of trouble. They smash furniture and break housewares, they devour Christmas food, they make a lot of noise, rattle and scream, they scare people, cheat children out of sweets, urinate in pans, burp loudly and drop farts on glasses and plates. In the dark they assault women, they steal people’s voices and cause all sorts of mishaps and accidents.
The Kallikantzaroi have characteristic names that in the Greek language sound bizarre, but also comical, peculiar and bizarre. Those include Malaganas, Triklopodis, Mandrakoukos, Magaras, Malaperdas, Planitaros, Katahanas, Vatrakoukos, Kolovelonis, Paganos.
Humans try to protect themselves against the Kallikatzaroi during Greek Christmas, mainly by exploiting their weaknesses. Since they are extremely light-shy, one should not turn off the fire in the stove and other light sources during the Christmas season. Since they are averse to religious (Christian) symbols, one should make sure to draw a cross on doors, windows and chimneys. It is also possible to use special charms to scare them. Incense and holy water also keep them away.
Kallikantzaroi and other beings are a classic example of the rich Greek folklore. For those curious about how traditions and customs are still alive today, there is the book “A guide to Greek traditions and customs in America”, full of practical information that will be indispensable to anyone interested in the Greek heritage.
Dodekaimeron and Epiphany – the baptism of Jesus
The Kallikantzaroi remain above the Earth for the entire duration of Greek Christmas, Dodekaimeron/Δωδεκαήμερον, which in Greece lasts between Christmas Eve (December 24) and Epiphany (January 6).
On January 6, when in Greece people celebrate the baptism of Jesus – Epiphany (see below), the Kallikantzaroi disappear back into the underworld. They return to their main year-long activity of trying to cut down the World Tree or World Pillar. But on the day of Epiphany, the sun has already regained its movement in the sky and the World Tree has grown large again. The Kallikantzaroi therefore have an impossible mission that can never be completed; it is constantly repeated in circles, year after year.
To ensure that all Kallikantzaroi have returned to their dens, small fireworks or firecrackers are set off on roofs and chimneys in Greece on the evening of Epiphany.
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The equivalent of the Greek Kallikantzaroi can also be found in other Balkan countries. In Bulgaria they are referred to as Karakondjul (Караконджул), in Serbia as Karakondžula (Караконџула) and as Kukudhi or Karkanxholji in Albania.
Epiphany is a major holiday in Greece celebrating the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River and the appearance of the Holy Spirit. The Greek Orthodox Church sanctifies the waters of lakes, rivers and seas. Priests then use basil twigs to sprinkle holy water on the faithful. They also throw a wooden cross into the water which young people jump in to catch. Whoever reaches first and picks up the cross carries it later to each household and receives rich gifts. Believers also get holy water home from the churches to use it for various protective purposes throughout the year.
To immerse yourself in Greek folklore take a look at: “The Book of Greek and Roman Folktales, Legends and Myths”. A rich collection of myths, fables and jokes from antiquity – everything from centaurs and satyrs to seers, women who suddenly change sex and men who can’t laugh…. The book offers a fascinating glimpse into the captivating, colorful storytelling and humorous fairy tale treasure of our ancestors.
Greek Christmas and New Year traditions
In this article, we have only scratched the surface of some of the countless Greek Christmas and New Year traditions. Folklorists have documented hundreds of different customs, songs, dances and more that vary greatly depending on where you are in Greece.
There are major differences in customs between, for example, the Cyclades and Northern Thrace, the Peloponnese, Crete or Greek Macedonia. There may even be differences between coastal and inland areas within the same region. There may be distinctive food traditions, special ceremonies, songs and dances, or other customs that appear very different between islands and the mainland, or between mountainous areas and plains.
Superstition and proverbs are a central part of Greek culture. In the book “Yiayia Approved: Greek Sayings, Proverbs, Advice, Superstitions, & More”, author Angela Vardalos Saclamacis has collected over 200 classic sayings, advice and supernatural beliefs – perfect for impressing relatives or just having fun while learning more about the traditions.
Here are some common traditions associated with the New Year that occur throughout the country:
- Right foot first. When you enter a house for the first time in the year, you should do so with your right foot. In this way you bring good luck and fortune to the house and its occupants for the whole of the coming year
- The long-awaited cake Βασιλόπιτα/Vasilopitta, in which a (gold) coin is hidden before baking. Whoever gets the piece of cake with the coin will have good luck and fortune throughout the new year
- Crushing a pomegranate in front of the door. The more seeds scattered, the more luck the house will have in the new year. Since ancient times, the pomegranate has been a symbol of happiness and abundance
Have you tasted some particular dishes or witnessed any special habits and customs during the celebrations of Greek Christmas? We would greatly appreciate it if you would share your experiences in the comments section!