Although winter brings in wind and cold weather, it also brings immense joy and holiday cheer to the entire world. Christmas is my favorite holiday, and I love to celebrate it with my family each year. Since my family is Greek, my mom and I make traditional Greek foods such as lamb and spinach pie for our annual holiday dinners. The warmth that emanates from these get-togethers obliterates any of the chills one could get from the frigid weather of the season.
Something I also adore about Christmastime is the plethora of traditions and stories that make the season so unique. Of course, everyone is familiar with the tale of St. Nicholas, which has evolved into the modern story of Santa Claus. Santa Claus is such a benevolent Christmas figure that it is hard to imagine anything that would contradict the holly jolly energy he brings to the table. However, this year I want to explore the Greek story of the Kallikantzaroi, who are the antithesis of merry, Christmastime characters like Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman.
The Kallikantzaroi are, in short, Christmas goblins. Every year between Christmas and the Epiphany (which is observed on January 6th on the Greek Orthodox calendar), these goblins terrorize the mortal world for twelve days with their antics and malevolence. According to Ancient Greek, the term ‘kallikantzaroi’ comes from the words ‘kali’, meaning ‘good’, and ‘kantharos’, meaning “beetle.” How they are meant to fit that description is a mystery for sure, but the beginning of the myth of the Kallikantzaroi can probably be traced back to the ancient holiday Saturnalia, one of the most famous festivities of antiquity that we know about today.
The Kallikantzaroi are said to live underground for nearly the whole year, with their sole purpose being to saw down and destroy the World Tree. The World Tree, present across many different religions and cultures, is thought to connect the heavens, Earth, and the underworld together with its roots. The Kallikantzaroi seek to get rid of this tree because they want the Earth to collapse in on itself, thereby exterminating the human race. After the Epiphany, when Orthodox priests make their rounds to all the homes with Holy Water, the Kallikantzaroi are said to flee back under the surface of the Earth, for they are afraid of all things holy. When the Kallikantzaroi arrive back at their home deep within the ground, they find that The World Tree has fully grown back during their short absence, and thus begin their annual task of cutting it down all over again.
Some of the tricks the Kallikantzaroi partake in are relatively mild, such as breaking furniture, spoiling people’s holiday meals, and even relieving themselves in yards. Similar to St. Nicholas, they can sneak into homes via chimney, but there are in fact several ways to keep the goblins at bay. For example, one might hang a pig jaw under the chimney, burn an old ratty shoe, or make the mark of the cross on the door to prevent the Kallikantzaroi from becoming unwelcome visitors. Additionally, leaving the fireplace on and throwing some salt on it can create a crackling noise that can frighten them. However, the most unusual method is to place a colander, an appliance with an abundance of holes, on the doorstep of your house. Allegedly, the Kallikantzaroi are not able to count above two, since three is a holy number and pronouncing it would kill them. Therefore, they will be stuck recounting the holes of the colander from one to two and back to one until the sun rises or until they get bored enough to leave you alone.
Because the creatures are mythical and appear across traditions beyond the Greeks, the physical characteristics of the Kallikantzaroi tend to change from region to region. They are generally depicted as a mixture of different animals. Depending on who you would ask, a Kallikantzaros (the -os vs. -oi ending suggests a singular gremlin) could be part horse, monkey, or goat, but they are always very hairy. Sometimes, they are enormous – taller than humans. Elsewhere, they are smaller than people, with large heads, red eyes, and a distinctive horrible smell.
Although the Kallikantzaroi are ancient mythological creatures, they actually still live on today in contemporary media. For example, the relatively popular TV show Grimm featured the Kallikantzaroi in an episode of season four called ‘The Grimm Who Stole Christmas’. Additionally, the Gringotts goblins from the Harry Potter franchise are referred to as Kallikantzaroi in Greek translations of the books, hearkening back from this old but significant tradition.
Whatever you may choose to celebrate this winter, remember the mischief of the Kallikantzaroi – surely they aren’t going to be on anybody’s ‘nice’ list!
Anastasia ‘Stacey’ Kaliabakos is a current senior and Dana Scholar at the College of the Holy Cross and a graduate of The Brearley School. She is double majoring in classics and philosophy and is a member of the college’s Honors Program. On campus, Kaliabakos is the Chief Opinions Editor of The Spire, Editor-in-Chief of the Parnassus Classical Journal, and President of the Delta Lambda chapter of the national Eta Sigma Phi Classics Honors Society. She has been featured in NEO Magazine and The National Herald and has contributed to The WestView News since 2018.