Christmas Traditions: Are the Kallikantzaroi Coming?

They showed up around Christmas Eve and disappeared when the sun came up.  They were small, black and mischievous and seemed to be an adjunct to the season.  These perceptions were incomplete.  Although my siblings and I were in the habit of asking our parents every possible detail about Greek life, this folk topic, the kallikantzaros, must not have received much attention; or perhaps the idea of goblin-like creatures breaking household objects didn’t sound too scary to me, so the little black kallikantzaroi remained a grey area for this Greek American.  

How little I knew of the huge variety of horrible tales, known by so many about the small, disagreeable creatures (in the thousands), not considered purely malevolent creatures but rather impish and stupid, who played a significant role and had a significant influence on the customs of the days of Christmas…kallikantzaroi!

A strange image: the kallikantzaroi live underground, perennially attempting to chop down the world tree so that it will collapse, along with the Earth.  Just as they are about to saw through the tree, Christmas dawns.They forget the tree and come to the surface to tease, annoy and scare mortals for the twelve days of Christmas, December 25, to the Epiphany, January 6, the winter solstice).

They are known by various names, such as kallikantzaroi, karkantzali, karkantzha, lykokantzaroi, kalkantoni, skalani, kalitsanteri, skalitangia, Verveles, corolla, and others.  Some say that their name comes from the Greek “good” and “kantharos”, others that the term isderived from kalos kentauros (“beautiful centaur”).  Stories about the kallikantzaros or its equivalents can be found in Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia and Turkey.

Kallikantzaroi were believed to be creatures of the night.  Traditionally they were thought to linger in mills and near rivers, climbing trees, jumping from roof to roof breaking tiles and coming down the chimney in houses where incense had not been burned (for good measure housewives used to burn incense near the fireplace).  They entered houses through cracks in the windows and doors, and being small and agile, even through keyholes.  Afraid of light they ran to hide during the day.

Kallikantzaroi were fond of making a mess in the kitchen, tipping over containers of oil, frying pans, dishes, spilling oil from the lamps once used to illuminate the villages.  They were said not to steal anything, rather to upset households to the point of leaving them unrecognizable.

According to folklore, there were many ways people could protect themselves during the days when the kallikantzaroi were on the loose.  One was to leave a colander on the doorstep.  Since it could not count above two-–three was believed to be a holy number, and that by pronouncing it the kallikantzaros would kill itself—the kallikantzaros would sit on the doorstep all night, counting each hole of the colander until the sun rose and it was forced to hide.  In some areas, people would throw foul-smelling shoes into the fire, as the stench was believed to repel the kallikantzaroi.  Marking the door with a black cross on Christmas Eve and burning incense was another way to keep them away.  Going out at night or out of the village was dangerous when the kallikantzaroi were about as they appeared to people in various forms to intimidate or hurt them.

There are regional variations as to the appearance of Kallikantzaroi.  They have been imagined as black and hairy and enormous, or tall, or tiny, or as humans of small size, or having horse legs, goat’s hooves, or boar’s tusks; having burning red eyes, goats’ or donkeys’ ears, monkeys’ arms and claws, and huge tongues hanging out.  The most common belief, however, was that they resembled little black devils with tails.  Kallikantzaroi were also thought to be mostly blind and to speak with a lisp.  They loved to eat frogs, worms, and other small creatures; and pork and sausages were their preferred foods; the latter had to be covered with inedible overgrown asparagus so the kallikantzaroi wouldn’t eat them.

One source says that according to legend anyone born on a Saturday could see and talk with the kallikantzaroi.  Also, that a child born during the twelve days of Christmas was in danger of transforming into a kallikantzaros every Christmas season when he reached adulthood.  It was believed that the antidote to prevent this transformation was to bind the baby in tresses of garlic or straw, or to singe the child’s toenails.

Another belief was that kallikantzaroi were ill-fated individuals that were changed into demons such as those born between Christmas and the Epiphany who were immediately baptized, or those for whom the baptismal prayers were not read correctly by the priest, as well as individuals who died during the twelve-days of Christmas, committed suicide, or did not have a strong angel to protect them.

There is an end in sight, however, from the twelve-day tyranny of the kallikantzaroi.Finally, on the Epiphany, January 6, January), when the sun starts moving again, they return underground to continue their sawing.  They see that during their absence the world tree has healed itself, so they must start working all over again…. until next Christmas.

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