Perhaps you have heard of this uniquely Greek legend of the Kallikantzari – the evil Christmas elves.
Evil Christmas Elves?
An old legend revolves around the Kallikantzaroi, or Kallintzari, who were like elves — though not so nice. Rather, they were evil, hairy creatures, which came out on the night before Christmas to make it a living hell. They would come into the homes through the chimney, put out the fire, scream, steal food, sour the milk, and even ride on people’s backs and kick them. While children in the West went to bed thinking of Santa and presents, children in Greece went to bed in fear of the kallikantzari.
Ties to Dionysos
It’s believed that the legend of the kallintzari dates all the way back to the ancient god Dionysos and his half man, half animal servants, the Satyrs. It was even believed that if a man was born on Christmas day, he was doomed to become a kallikantzari at some point in his life.
Fire keeps the Kallikantzari away
Kallikantzari appear only during the 12-day (Dodekaimeron) period between Christmas and Epiphany. They are said to emerge from the center of the earth, and enter a home through the chimney. Incidentally, isn’t that how Santa gets into our homes? Hmmm. However, the fire is typically kept burning all day to keep them out.
Blessing the house
Another method for keeping the kallikantzari out involves a bowl of water and some basil. Traditionally, as the main symbol of the season, there is a bowl filled with water, and a piece of wire suspended over the top. A sprig of basil is wrapped with a small wooden cross, and hung from the wire. The water keeps the basil fresh. Once a day, a member of the household, typically the mother, dips the basil in some holy water and sprinkles it throughout the house, to keep the Kallikantzari away.
Why the fear?
Kids learning the story of the Kallikantzari often go to bed fearing they will show up at their home. Wonder why a tale of fear is used at this joyous time of year? Perhaps it’s a way to get kids to behave or get them to go to sleep at night. Maybe this is the precursor to the “Santa is watching!” discussion! May this was the inspiration for the Elf on the Shelf, that is used to remind kids to behave (he’s watching and will report to Santa) and some say it’s creepy. Nonetheless, it’s a fun story to share.
You better watch out!
This article was originally written and published in 2007.