Holiday Traditions: The Kallikantzaroi In Greece

In the spirit of sharing, we will be bringing you stories about how different families celebrate the holiday season. Today, we will be bringing you the story of the kallikantzaroi, which is part of the Greek holiday folk tradition.

Nicole Parthenon
Me, on one of my trips to Greece as a child, in front of the Parthenon in Athens.

My father was born in Athens, Greece. He came to the United States to attend the University of Texas. He met my mom, who was born in Pennsylvania, they had me, and as the saying goes, the rest is history. Although we spent summers in Greece, we mostly celebrated holidays American-style. When my son was born, my husband and I did follow one Greek tradition when we chose my son’s middle name. Although, by custom, you name your child after the paternal grandfather (which we happened to do, although not completely for tradition’s sake), you can also choose to name a child after an important figure in Greek mythology or history. For example, I have a relative in Greece named Hector. One of our runner-up first names was Alex, so we chose Alexandros, which is the Greek version of Alexander.

As we raised my son, we told him about his Greek ancestry, and he really came to embrace it. It didn’t hurt that Alexander the Great was an almost mythic figure and he was steeped in a book I loved growing up, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. When an opportunity arose to come present at school about your family’s holiday cultural traditions a few years ago, it only seemed fitting that I would sign up to present about Greek traditions. The only problem was that we only visited during the summer and I actually didn’t know a whole lot about Greek holiday traditions. Luckily, my dad told me a story that I shared with those students and that I’ll share with you.

Of course, Greece has been in the news a lot in the past few years because of its economic crisis. (Note: I didn’t originally mention this to the students, but it seems relevant to reference here.) What you might not know about Greece is that it has 11 million inhabitants, whereas Texas has a population of about 26 million people. To give you an idea of how big Greece is, Texas is about 5 times the size of the country. While the United States is often referred to as a melting pot, most Greeks share the same belief system, so most people in Greece celebrate Christmas. My dad grew up believing in something called the kallikantzaroi.

This is one depiction of the kallikantzaroi. Image credit: Spyros Kaltikopoulos / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

According to Greek folk tradition, kallikantzaroi are half-animal, half-human goblin-like creatures who stay underground sawing the tree that holds up the world, so that it will collapse, along with Earth. When they are about to saw the final part, Christmas dawns, and the Christmas spirit seems to drive them crazy and they rise up out of the Earth. They forget all about the tree and come to bring trouble to humans by doing mischievous things like overturning and breaking your furniture and eating your food.

Finally, on the Epiphany (January 6th), which is known in the Greek Orthodox faith as the Blessing of the Waters, priests travel around towns and sprinkle the people and their houses with holiday waters. This causes the kallikantzaroi to go underground again to continue their sawing. They see that while they were gone, the world tree has grown anew, so they must start working all over again. This happens every year.

The world tree that the kallikanztaroi were trying to saw down. Image credit: Nicke L / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

AdvertisementThere were several things you could do to protect your house against the kallikanzaroi:

  • mark the threshold of your door with a black cross on Christmas Eve (made by burning a candle close to the spot on the wood) and burn incense
  • light a yule log called a skakantzalos, which produced a strong smell to keep the wicked elf-like creatures away (sometimes old shoes were burned, for the same effect)
  • leave a colander on your doorstep to trick the kallikanztaroi. These creatures could not count above the number two, because three is a holy number and by uttering it, they would die), so the kallikanztaroi would sit at the doorstep counting “1, 2″ repeatedly for each hole in the colander, until the sun rose and they were forced to hide under the earth’s surface again

I played this song and we all agreed that these sounded like very naughty creatures, indeed:

We then discussed how this tradition reminded us of a modern American tradition where something in the middle of the night causes havoc inside of your house. We wondered together if Elf on the Shelf was at all based on the kallikanztaroi.

I’m glad I can learn more about my family’s heritage as I’m teaching it to my son.

If you are Greek or Greek-American and would like to connect with other Greeks, many Greeks attend the Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church in southwest Austin, which has an annual festival. I grew up attending St. Elias Orthodox Church in downtown Austin, which has a fall festival each year.

Do you have any special traditions surrounding your family’s cultural heritage around the holidays?

About Nicole Basham 793 Articles
A native Austinite and soccer-playing mom, Nicole uses her 10-year-old son as an excuse to rediscover her hometown through his eyes. In Thoreau's words, her mission is to "suck out all the marrow of life", or in her son's words, to cultivate in him a love of "advenchers".

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