The celebrations throughout the Twelve days of Christmas, called Dodekaimera, period until Epiphany, (6th January), end on Epiphany day where Greek Christmas celebrations conclude with the feast called “Ta Phota” meaning “The Lights”. In the Orthodox Church this feast is important as the baptism of Christ. On the Eve of this day the priest would go round all houses and perform “ayiasmos” sprinkle holy water to bless the houses and all those who live there. It is believed that this visit by the priest would expel the “kallikantzari” who leave before they can finish sawing the world’s foundations. Years back children would pass from the houses singing Phota kalanta but these traditions do not appear any more in the big towns where parents are afraid to let their children knock on doors of people they do not know and trust but in some villages these traditions still exist.
Kalikantzari, which are malevolent goblins, in Greek and Cypriot folklore tradition, would get out of the depth of earth, where they usually live and their job is to destroy the trunk of the tree, where earth sits on, so that it can collapse and when it is ready to collapse they get out and would stroll around in the dark, to torture people in many ways.
When we were kids and heard stories told about them we were scared to death. Kalikantzari, were described to us as ugly creatures, partly human and partly animal, having horns and tails, goat shaped beards, skinny or fat, short or tall, either getting into houses from the chimneys, steeling food, or urinating on food and mostly playing tricks on people.
In the villages, superstitious housewives would seal the chimneys and any holes in the doors and windows so that Kalikantzari couldn’t get in. They would throw pieces of meat, sausages or xerotigana (kind of fried dough like pdoughnuts) on the roof, to keep them occupied and not get in the houses, saying: “Titsi, titsi loukaniko, kommati xerotianon, na fasin kai na fyousin”. This is freely translated as “Let them eat sausages and doughnuts so that they can go away”.
On the Eve of Theophaneia, (which means appearance of God) or Phota (which means The Lights) as Epiphany is called, the priest would pass from all the houses, sprinkling holy water to bless the people living there and the kalikantzari would be expelled to go back sawing the trunk holding the foundations of earth, until the next Christmas.
On the day of Epiphany there is the great “Ayiasmos” (the word also refers to the holy water itself), service in the church, some of that water is kept with the family icons and is believed to have healing properties. After the service in church all people are gathered wherever there are ports, rivers or lakes, even swimming pools and the priest throws the cross into the water, even if the temperature is below 0 C and a few young men and brave girls will dive in to retrieve it – the one who catches the cross is considered to be blessed for all the year.