At last, the most wonderful time of the year is upon us and everything is ready to celebrate the jolliest days of them all, Christmas! Question is: have you been naughty or nice this year? Stop worrying, in Greece, it doesn’t make a difference.
Today, Christmas traditions have surpassed the limits of religion and culture. Regardless of any individual cultural background, people from all over the world celebrate almost in absolute uniformity the popular traditions of Santa Claus and his following elves, and every household longs for putting up a Christmas tree and hanging stockings on the fireplace, while waiting for the coming of Santa Claus. What about the local traditions though? The Greek version of Christmas is a much darker story with cunning imps and spirits ascending to the world with a single goal: to ruin Christmas!
According to the Greek folklore tradition, there is only one thing to be afraid of during Christmas, the Kallikantzaroi. This magical beast varies in appearance from place to place and can be found in the tradition of other countries too. For the Greeks, a Kallikantzaros is a creature of the night sometimes tall as a human or of a dwarf-size with weird posture and long limbs. Sometimes they have donkey-shaped ears, tusks of a boar, talons of a hawk, a tail of a horse, hooves and their bodies are covered by thick fur. They are predominantly male often with protruding genitalia and speak the human language with a lisp. They usually live underground, therefore they are almost blind, and feed on insects, worms, frogs, and snakes but the characteristic that gives them away in an instant is their horrible smell.
During the whole year, these demons have only one job: to slowly saw down the primal trunk of the tree of life that supports the Earth from falling into the Underworld. By the time of the winter solstice, much of their job is done and terrified that the world will collapse upon them they sneak into burrows to find their way to the world of the living. For almost a fortnight, and as long the sun is not moving from its position in the skies, they are free to roam the earth and fling themselves into every mischief and deviltry they can think of.
From the 25th of December to the 6th of January, the Kallikantzaroi spread terror to the world. They come in packs but they can easily be tricked due to their very low intelligence. One way to protect from them is to put a colander on your doorstep. The creature will start counting the holes and since it is not able to count over the number two, it will eventually get distracted by something else and leave you safe and sound. During their stay on Earth, they stomp over the crops, smash the windows of houses, and madly dance on the roofs breaking the roof tiles. They sneak into the houses through small doors and chimneys, eating everything they can find and in some places, it is believed that they stalk close to wells for any passenger to grab him down and dance with him until they pass out. To make things worse, if a child is born during their stay in the world, the parents should be very careful to protect their child from the Kallikantzaroi. It is believed that if the creature touches the baby it will transform into a Kallikantzaros, joining them into their revelries and feasts.
Despite the ominous sound of it, there are many ways to protect yourselves from the presence of the Kallikantzaroi. To protect your roof, throw candy and treats on it to keep them busy eating rather than destroying the roof tiles. Always have your fireplace lit to deter them from crawling down the chimney, lock your doors during the night and carry garlic bulbs with you since these creatures hate the smell of it. To discourage them from scratching your walls, make sure you put a braid of garlic bulbs outside of your house and no Kallikantzaros will ever try to come close.
The two days when it is safe to walk outside of your place unprotected is Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Since Jesus is born on Christmas, all the angels and saints are attesting his birth and the world is safe from any evil. On New Year’s Eve, St. Basil the Great, the Greek Santa Claus, walks on earth and keeps the evil spirits away while offering his gifts and help to those in need. This is why kids are allowed to wander the neighborhoods and sing the carols collecting candy and delicious treats!
Swimmers jump in the sea to catch the cross on Epiphany Day in Piraeus - credits: Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock.com
On January the 6th, the day of Epiphany, the priests are purifying the waters of the world on the occasion of the Baptism of Jesus, and the Sun starts moving again in the sky. Terrified by those events, the Kallikantzaroi scream to each other to return to the bowels of the earth only to discover that the holy waters have regenerated the tree of life. This will keep them busy for the year to come.
For receiving the gift you wished for, being naughty or nice really makes a difference but not so much when you are dealing with the Kallikantzaroi. Avoid common mistakes to enjoy the best time of the year in Greece, plan your own trip to the country, enjoy a Christmas food tour in Athens or check out one of our Greece tours.