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Kalikantzari and Theophaneia

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.

These are the carols sung during Theophaneia:

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 “Agiasmos” (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.

Chronia Polla!

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17 Responses

  1. I can understand that you were scared ;-P! Great traditions!



  2. Our church in Astoria congregates by the East River (on the Astoria side with Manhattan as a backdrop) and throws the cross there … I don’t think anyone has ever dove in however! It is the symbolism, though, that counts.
    There is a beautiful ceremony as well in Tarpon Springs, Florida where there are a number of Greeks (mainly Kalymnians) and with the warmer climate young men and women are able to dive in after the cross there.
    Xronia Polla Ivy!

  3. giz

    Thank you for the history lesson. Fascinating. Are you in fact having this feast?

  4. Dee

    Love the legend, Ivy. I like the idea of blessing the home for a year, and this year certainly needs all the help it can get 🙂 Happy 2009, my friend!

    We just had chorizo and beans last night 🙂

  5. That’s quite interesting. Epiphany is celebrated in Goa too. And today is officially the end of Xmas celebrations.

    I have been away from blogging and have quite a bit of catching up to do.:D

    Happy New Year, Ivy.

  6. I need to avoid those goblins – pass me the holy water pleaseQ!

  7. When I was little (I was raised Orthodox), the priest would throw the cross in the Charles River in Boston where I lived. Boston being a bit colder than Greece, we would sometimes have to break the ice to do it, and STILL some of the boys would jump in after it. I don’t remember any of the girls being silly enough to jump in already-frozen water 😉 Those of us on the shore were usually frozen enough, bundled up in our long underwear, hats and gloves!

  8. Ivy

    Good morning and chronia polla as we say in Greece on similar occasions, like Epiphany day.

    Rose, yes we were really scared.

    Maria, I am really glad to hear that these traditions are still alive through diaspora.

    Giz, I am not much of going to a church person and these folklore stories are, of course, just like fairy tales but when we were kids we did believe them and years, many years ago, ignorant uneducated village people did in fact do the stuff I mention.

    Dee, Happy New year to you. We do believe that having a pries make ayiasmo at your house, brings good luck.

    Aparna, Epiphany is celebrated both by Orthodox and Catholics but in a different way, the meaning of this feast is however the same.

    Cakelaw. You are hilarious. I had such a laugh reading your comment.

    Hopie, they do this in Greece as well. In Northern Greece, where the temperature is below 0, they do crack the ice to dive in and the girls who do dive usually do this in some islands where the temperature is quite high and only during the past decade, as far as I know.

  9. Ivy, I’ll be watching the Greek news as they show how they mark Epiphany all around Greece. Regardless of where in Greece, that water is too damn cold! Bless their hearts to those that dive in.

  10. I’ve never heard of throwing the cross into the water and then diving in after it. If I could swim, I’d find one of those churches and go diving myself! I could use a blessed year!

    Xronia Polla Ivy!

  11. Just read about Epiphany at Tartlettes…loved the story behind it here. What an interesting bunch of traditions Ivy…scary! Yes, I’ll take some holy water too…

  12. Elias

    Chronian Polla,

    I suspect that the “kalikantzari” or goblins are a throwback to Greeces’ pagan past. In fact there are quite a few examples of these marriages of paganism with Christianity. I dont know exactly how this came about but I suspect that when the high priests converted to Christianity they used their superstitions and exhisting reliegious calendar and thoughts to explain certain Christian beliefs.

    On another note, what about the “lokmades” or “xerotiana” as they are called in Cyprus? Traditionally, these sweets would be left out on the roofs of houses on the night of the 5th of January so that the kalikantzari (Goblins) would eat them and not harm the inhabitants of that house.

    Touch wood I’m not superstitious though! LOL!

  13. Ivy

    Peter, it is quite cold, especially this year.

    Niki, in some parts of Greece, e.g. like Piraeus, where the waters are polluted, nobody dives in. The cross is attached to a big ribbon, which the priest then pulls out.

    Deeba, I must go and read what Tartlette has written.

    Elias, you are absolutely right about how many traditions passed on from paganism to Christianity and the priests did take advantage of the illiteracy of the people to have them scared and believe.
    Regarding “lokmades” or “xerotiana”, as we call them in Cyprus, I translated it as doughnuts and I forgot to mention their song: “Titsi, titsi (meat) loukaniko, kommati xerotigano, na fame kai na figoume..” for those who want to know what that means they are calling out for “meat, sausages or pieces of doughnut, so that they can eat and then leave”.. Thanks for passing by and leaving your comment.

  14. Nice site! Thank you!

  15. I want to say – thank you for this!

  16. Beautiful site!

  17. If you have to do it, you might as well do it right