Epiphany in Greece > The Kalikantzaroi

Epiphany in Greece is known as Theofania or Fota. The first sanctification of the Epiphany (The Enlightenment) takes place in church on the eve of the holiday. Afterwards, the priest goes from house to house holding a cross and a basil branch. As he walks through each house, he uses the basil to sprinkle (bless) all the areas of the home.

An old custom in Crete, which is almost forgotten today, was the preparation of the fotokoliva (boiled wheat with peas) on the eve of Epiphany. The fotokoliva was eaten by the people, but they also fed it to their livestock, which was believed to insure good health and fortune in the homes.

The big sanctification takes place the following day, January 6, the day of the Epiphany.

A long procession is formed and follows whatever road that leads to a body of water – the sea, a river or even a reservoir. Up in front of the procession are the cherub icons, followed by the priests dressed in their best holiday splendor, then the VIPs, followed by all the people. In the bigger cities, the procession becomes more elaborate with the addition of music and military contingents.

At the end of the sanctification ceremony a priest throws a cross into the water, thus blessing the waters. Then, those who dare – mostly the younger people of the village – jump in the usually icy water and compete in retrieving the cross. The one who brings the cross up to the surface will enjoy good luck and health for the entire year.

KALIKANTZAROI, THE CHRISTMAS SPRITES > Kalikantzaroi, or the Christmas Sprites, are small blackish and hairy creatures, with long arms and tail, who reside in the bowels of the earth. With a big saw, they compete to cut down the huge wooden stake which holds the earth in place. But the column is very thick and the sawing seems to go on forever.

Right before Christmas, however, they almost accomplish their mission and the column seems ready to fall. Overjoyed by their almost successful effort, but also fearful that the earth will topple over on their heads, they rush to the top to bother and annoy the people.

Thousands of these creatures come up to the surface from every hole or crack they can find. However, they are very much afraid of the light, so they hide during the day. But at night – that’s when they strike! As soon as it’s dark, they scramble from their hiding places to taunt and menace people. Because they are small, some even very tiny, they can get into the homes through chimneys, keyholes, even from the little cracks on windows and doors.

They enjoy lollygagging around in places like oil vats, frying pans, oily pots and dishes, and they really get a kick out of soiling food with their filthy fingernails and leaving their excrement all over the place. About the only good thing that can be said about these nasty pests is that they never steal anything – oh, but what a mess!

Their name comes from the adjective, kalos, meaning good, and kantharos, the word for beetle. The beginning of the myth regarding the Christmastide Sprites can be found in ancient times. The people of that time believed that when the souls in Hades found the door open they would come up to our world and make the rounds among people without any restrictions.

Much later the Byzantines celebrated with music, song and masquerading. Because the people hid their faces they were shameless and behaved boldly. They would bother people on the street, and go into the homes uninvited, pestering the people by continuously asking for sausages and sweets. The homeowners would slam the doors and shut the windows, but the persistent masqueraders would always find a point of entry – like coming down the chimney.

All this activity would occur during the 12 days of Christmas and on the Epiphany. Then, after the big sanctification all would become calm again as the people settled back down into their normal routine.

Today, the Kalikantzaroi disappear during the celebration of the lights, after the waters are blessed by the priests. As those pesky little creatures depart, you can hear them saying: “Leave we shall, because the crazy priest has arrived with his incense burner and his holy water sprinkler . . .”

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