Even at Christmastime, the Greeks have found a way to incorporate the shadow into the holiday season. They celebrate the story of a benevolent Santa Claus who comes bearing gifts, but they also have a tradition that is downright scary: every year between Christmas and Epiphany, January 6th in the Greek Orthodox calendar, creatures known as Kallikantzaroi are thought to be active.
So what's the story with these Christmas goblins?
These gremlin like beasts are said to live underground and busy themselves with sawing the World Tree, which is thought to hold up the earth. However, during the twelve days of Christmas, they scramble up from the earth and venture out to wreak havoc, including breaking furniture, spoiling food and urinating in flowerbeds.
The creatures' appearance changes from region to region, but they are generally depicted as a hairy mixture of animal parts, including horses, monkeys or goats, with large heads, red eyes and a horrible smell. Even though these creatures are famous for making mischief, the origin of the name is thought to come from the word for good, or "kali" and beetle, or "kantharos". Another possible root is kalos-kentaurus, or beautiful centaur. Just like Old Saint Nick, they can sneak into homes via the chimney, but there are a number of ways to keep the goblins at bay. Hanging a pig jaw on the door or chimney or burning an old shoe are good antidotes, as well as leaving a fire in the fireplace and throwing some salt on for good measure, as the crackling noise is thought to frighten the critters. The strangest method is to leave a colander on the doorstep of your house, so when these nocturnal creatures come calling, they would be tricked. Kallikantzaroi cannot count above two: because three is a holy number, pronouncing it would kill themselves, so they spend the entire night counting the holes until dawn.
Being born on Christmas Day is cause for concern, as it's thought to upstage the birth of Jesus. One way to avoid an onslaught of Kallikantzaroi or bad luck is to bind the newborn with garlic - much better than the old days, when singeing the baby's toenails was customary.
One origin for this folk legend is rooted in the winter festivals of Dionysus, and later Bacchus in Rome. Known as the Saturnalia, this celebration was a time when restrictions were relaxed and slaves were allowed to wear their masters' clothing. The holiday became so popular that it was extended and the general revelry, merriment and masquerade activity would last for an entire week.
The twelve days of Christmas is thought to be when the sun has slowed its movement after the solstice. At Epiphany, when the sun gradually moves towards longer days, the Kallikantzaroi return underground to resume sawing the World Tree for the rest of the year.
Wishing you all a Kallikantzaroi-free Christmas and a blessed holidays!