Callicantzari, Kallikantzaroi

According to traditional Greek folklore, the kallikantzari rampaged across Greece during the Twelve Days of Christmas. These diminutive demons spent the rest of the year deep inside the earth gnawing at the tree that supports the world. The tree renewed itself each year during the season of Christ's birth. Thus thwarted, the enraged kallikantzari swarmed up to the surface of the earth to bedevil humanity. The holy ceremonies occurring on Epiphany drove them back underground. Belief in the kallikantzari was especially strong in the region of Mt. Parnassos.


Reports concerning the appearance of these demons varied. According to some, the kallikantzari appeared half human and half animal. Many claimed to have caught a glimpse of long, curved talons, red eyes, hairy bodies, or donkey's ears. Others told frightening tales of tiny imps who rode astride lame or deformed chickens.


According to Greek folklore, the kallikantzari knew many ways of vexing human beings. Some reports said that they entered homes by the door or the chimney, relieved themselves in any open containers of food and drink, upset furniture, and extinguished the fire. Others credited them with direct attacks on human beings. For example, they hopped on peoples' backs and drove them to dance until they collapsed. The presence of the kallikantzari during the Twelve Days of Christmas posed special problems for expectant mothers. Children born at this time of year ran the risk of becoming kallikantzari themselves. From sunset to dawn the demons roamed the countryside looking for opportunities to harass humanity. They tended to retreat into hiding places at daybreak, however.


Just as traditional beliefs warned of the dangers presented by the kallikantzari, they also offered methods for warding off these attacks. Keeping a fire burning in the hearth during the Twelve Days of Christmas prevented the demons from entering the home through the chimney. In addition, the kallikantzari found the smell of burning shoes, salt, wild asparagus, or other substances that produced a foul smoke especially repugnant. Of course, so did human beings. Greek folklore apparently did not address the subject of whether this method of repelling the kallikantzari also repelled family, friends, and neighbors. Traditional lore also recommended hanging a pig's jaw bone by the door as a method of preventing the kallikantzari from crossing the threshold. To protect babies born during the Twelve Days of Christmas from becoming kallikantzari, mothers wrapped their infants in garlic or straw, or scorched their toes in the fire.

The religious ceremonies associated with Epiphany offered the most effective method of driving off the malicious pranksters. According to Greek custom, priests visited homes on Epiphany, filling them with the scent of burning incense and sprinkling them with holy water. Greek folklore insisted that the kallikantzari fled before this onslaught of holiness, retreating to their underground lair until the following Christmas.


According to various European folk traditions, demons, spirits, and magical creatures of all kinds roamed the earth during the Twelve Days of Christmas. Some of these demons served as the unlikely companions of St. Nicholas (see also St. Nicholas's Day). The good saint somehow tamed the Czechoslovakian cert, the Dutch Black Peter, and the German Knecht Ruprecht. Yet many other supernatural creatures still wandered freely through the dark nights. In some parts of northern Europe traditional lore asserted that werewolves, bears, or trolls prowled for victims during the Twelve Days of Christmas. Legends from some countries warned that the fearsome spirits known as the Wild Hunt raced across the night skies at this time of year. German lore cautioned that the supernatural figure known as Berchta toured the countryside with her entourage during these cold, dark days. Often, Frau Gaude, too, appeared to German villagers at this time of year. Other folklore told of frolicking elves and fairies, such as the Swedish Jultomten and the Icelandic Christmas Lads.

Further Reading

Arrowsmith, Nancy, and George Moorse. A Field Guide to the Little People. New York: Pocket Books, 1977. Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003