By Anastasia Kaliabakos
Although winter brings wind and cold weather, it also offers immense joy and holiday cheer to the entire world. Christmas is my favorite holiday, and I love to celebrate with a big family gathering each year. As our family is Greek, my mom and I prepare traditional Greek dishes, like lamb and spinach pie, for everyone to enjoy. The warmth that emanates from these get-togethers obliterates any of the chills one might get from the frigid weather of the season.
Something I also love about winter is the variety 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 more modern story of Santa Claus. Because Santa is such a benevolent Christmas figure, it is hard to imagine anything that would contradict the gaiety he brings to the table. However, this year I want to explore the Greek story of the Kallikantzaroi, whose story is the antithesis of those of holly jolly characters like Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman.
In short, the Kallikantzaroi are Christmas goblins. Every year, for twelve days between Christmas and the Epiphany (which is on January 6th on the Greek Orthodox calendar), these goblins terrorize the mortal world with their antics and malevolence. This is interesting because, according to ancient Greek, the term Kallikantzaroi comes from the words “kali,” meaning “good,” and “kantharos,” meaning “beetle.” How the goblins are meant to fit that description is a mystery for sure, but the beginning of the Kallikantzaroi myth can probably be traced back to the ancient Saturnalia celebration, one of the most famous festivities of antiquity that we know about today.
The Kallikantzaroi are said to live under the ground for the year, their sole purpose being to saw down and destroy the world tree, which is acknowledged by many different religions and cultures and is thought to connect the heavens, earth, and the underworld 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 with holy water make their rounds to all homes, the Kallikantzaroi flee back under the earth, as 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 absence, and thus will begin their annual task of cutting it down all over again.
Some of the antics in which the Kallikantzaroi partake 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 through chimneys. But there are several ways to keep the goblins at bay. For example, one might hang a pig jaw under the chimney, burn an old shoe, or make the mark of the cross on the door to prevent the Kallikantzaroi from becoming unwelcome visitors. Additionally, leaving the fireplace burning and throwing some salt on it can create a crackling noise that can frighten them. However, the most unusual method of protection is to place a colander on the doorstep of your house. Allegedly, the Kallikantzaroi cannot count above two, since three is a holy number and pronouncing it would kill them, so they will be stuck recounting the holes from one to two, and back to one, until the sun rises or until they get bored enough to leave the residents alone.
Because the creatures are mythical and appear across traditions beyond the Greeks, the physical characteristics of the Kallikantzaroi change from region to region. They are generally depicted as a mixture of different animals (like the mythical chimera). Depending on whom you ask, a Kallikantzaros (the os versus 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. Other times they are smaller than people, with large heads, red eyes, and a distinctive and horrible odor.
Although the Kallikantzaroi are ancient mythological creatures, they still live on today in contemporary media. For example, the 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 to 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, a graduate of the Brearley School, has contributed to WestView News since 2018. Currently, she is a Dana Scholar majoring in classics and philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross, an opinions editor for Holy Cross’ newspaper The Spire, editor-in-chief of the Parnassus Classical Journal, and an avid matcha latte consumer.