Does she love me, Santa, or does she love me not?

Does she love me, Santa, or does she love me not?

Nicosia resident Sergios Christou said that 20 years ago Cypriots would put gifts under the Christmas Tree on January 1st.

“It seems people have now been Europeanised and they instead gather and exchange gifts on Christmas Day”, Christou said.

“For a while we did gifts on both Christmas and New Year’s but that got to be too much. I actually prefer giving gifts on Christmas. It gives the kids more time to enjoy their presents over the holiday period”.

Despite the change in date, Christou said that many of the traditions, like putting biscuits and milk out the night before Santa comes to vist, still exist, they just now come a week earlier. And Ayios Vassilis, the Saint celebrated on January 1st has become synonymous with Santa Claus.

“The other day my six-year-old granddaughter suggested that Santa might be happier if we instead put out beer for him this year”.

Christou said that a common village tradition is to cross a dry leaf by a fireplace and then, after making a wish to Ayios Vassilis, toss it into the fire.

“Before tossing the dry leaf into the flames, you would say “Ayie Vassili Vasilia deixe tze fanerose an me agapa o…” (Ayie Vassili King, show and illuminate if I am loved by…) and then you name whoever’s love you are hoping for.

“If the leaf jumped up after you dropped it in the fire, then that meant the person loves you. If not, you got depressed and tried again”.

Armenian, Russian and Greek Christmas traditions

Why Armenians celebrate Christmas on January 6 >

The exact date of Jesus’ birth has not been recorded in the Gospels and is not historically known. Despite this mystery date, Christian churches before the fourth century celebrated Jesus’ birthday on January 6.

According to Associate Director of the Eurasia Research Programme at the University of Cambridge Hratch Tchilingirian, Roman Catholic sources hold that the date was changed in the fourth century to December 25 to override a pagan feast dedicated to the birth of the Sun, which was celebrated on December 25.

To undermine this pagan practice, the Church hierarchy designated December 25 as the official date of Christmas and January 6 as the feast of Epiphany.

“However, Armenia was not affected by this change for the simple fact that there were no such pagan practices in Armenia on that date, and the fact that the Armenian Church was not a satellite of the Roman Church,” Tchilingirian writes. “Remaining faithful to their Church traditions, Armenians continue to celebrate Christmas on January 6th until today.”

The ‘arch-heresy of ecumenism’ >

While Armenians may celebrate Christmas on January 6, Russian Orthodox and other Old Calendarists celebrate it on January 7. Or rather, they celebrate it on January 7 by the Julian calendar, which translates to December 25 on the Gregorian calendar.

In the mid 16th century, the Roman Catholic Council of Trent adopted the Gregorian calendar, which most of the world presently uses.

The Eastern Orthodox Church used the Julian calendar all the way up through the early 20th century, after which some of its members, including Greece and Cyprus, moved to a revised version of the old calendar, known as the Revised Julian calendar. The Russian Orthodox Church, the largest Orthodox jurisdiction, as well as a number of other Orthodox jurisdictions, including the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Mount Athos, did not adopt the Revised Julian calendar. Along with the majority of Orthodox Christians worldwide, these jurisdictions still use the Julian calendar for religious observation, although all the the countries where Orthodox Christians live have adopted the Gregorian calendar for secular purposes.

In Greece and Cyprus, Old Calendarists maintain that they have not branched off from the mainstream Church not only over a mere calendar. The calendar, in their view, is merely a symptom of what they refer to as the “arch-heresy of ecunemism”.

Christmas controversy?

The dream of Christian children worldwide: Jerusalem celebrates three Christmases! That statement is, of course, a bit misleading. The traditional Christian communities, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian, celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25, January 6 and January 19 respectively, negating the possibility of Santa coming thrice to the same child.

These faith traditions each bring their own customs to the holiday, but share a common focus on the mystery and glory of the event, deemphasizing the commercial aspects so prevalent in the West.

Most Europeans and Americans are unfamiliar with the Armenian Church, which is ironic, because Armenia officially adopted the faith in 301 CE (about 25 years before Rome), and has maintained an emphasis on the Christ-mass, without the more secular gift-giving.

Bishop Aris Shirvanian, spokesman for the Armenian Patriarchate, explains why the Western churches were more influenced by pagan practices surrounding Christmas.

Christmas parties and gift-giving stem from “merrymaking inherited from the old pagan worship of the sun god – Saturn” he said. “Saturnalia was celebrated on December 25 in Rome, while Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus on January 6. The pope of the day, Sylvester, in order to abolish the pagan feast, moved the celebration of Jesus’s birthday from January 6 to December 25, but the Armenian church had no reason to change the date because there was no pagan feast in Armenia on December 25.”

Since the Armenians maintain the ancient date of Christmas as well as the old (Julian) calendar, 13 days are added to January 6, postponing Armenian Christmas until January 19 on the modern (Gregorian) calendar.

The Armenians focus on astvadz-a-haytnootyoon – revelation, since the January 6 holy day celebrated both Jesus’s birth and baptism. Many churches still celebrate Epiphany, the baptism of Jesus, on January 6.

Since Jesus’s birth and baptism are celebrated together, water is a vital aspect of the Armenian feast. Water, blessed by the Armenian clergy, receives the addition of oil believed to be similar to that which Jesus used to clean the feet of his Apostles, and is distributed to the congregants. The oil additive is said to come from St. Thaddeus, who first preached the gospel in Armenia, and is considered to have healing properties.

On January 18, Christmas Eve, Patriarch Torkam Manogian leaves the Armenian Quarter of the Old City with a large entourage and police escort. In centuries past the horse drawn procession stopped at the Greek Monastery of Mar Elias outside Bethlehem to water the horses and allow devotees to refresh themselves. Modern processions keep that tradition, as the Palestinian Authority assumes responsibility for the procession. Greek Archbishop Aristochos notes that the two governments work diligently to ensure Christmas access to Bethlehem. The Greek Orthodox Church enjoys a similar procession on Christmas Eve.

The procession continues to Bethlehem’s Manger Square, where there is an official reception. The congregants enter the Church of the Nativity – shared by the Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Armenians – and a mass is held. After a festive supper and rest, the midnight mass begins, concluding at about 3:30 Christmas morning.

The Greek Orthodox were reluctant to join the Western church in celebrating Christmas on December 25, but eventually did so for the sake of unity. Both East and West agreed to celebrate Jesus’s birth in December and his baptism on January 6. Still, Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox Church clings to the Julian calendar, so when it adds the required 13 days to December 25, it celebrates Christmas on January 7 according to the modern calendar.

A highlight of the Greek Orthodox Christmas season is the Feast of St. Nicholas on December 6 and a pilgrimage to the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas in Beit Jala. St. Nicholas was a church father born in the late third century who made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in about 330 CE. Tradition holds that he slept in a cave in Beit Jala while visiting nearby Bethlehem. The church built over that cave commemorates his pilgrimage.

Archbishop Aristochos states that St. Nicholas’s feast day “prepares us for Christmas.” Since St. Nicholas was noted for his kindness and generosity to children, many believe this contributed to the Western tradition of giving gifts on Christmas. Influenced by northern European immigrants to the US, St. Nicholas’s memory eventually morphed into Santa Claus, akin to the Dutch Sinterklaas.

The Greek Orthodox observe a 40-day fast before Christmas. The fast forbids meat, milk and eggs, but allows fish after the first week until the beginning of the last. This culminates with a great feast on Christmas Day including fried fish, asparagus with egg and lemon sauce, bean soup, and honey cake with nuts.

There are a number of beliefs related to the kallikantzaroi – “bad spirits” according to the Archbishop – that are released during Christmas and wreak havoc until January 6, when Epiphany is celebrated.

These spirits are mischievous, toppling things and scaring people. Still, tradition holds that home remedies can be employed to restrain them. Among these is a sprig of basil wrapped around a wooden cross. Eventually the kallikantzaroi are expelled by the priest on Epiphany as he sprinkles holy water (associated with Jesus’s baptism) around the house.

Like the members of its related liturgical churches, Roman Catholics proceed to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, celebrated December 24. This is the celebration for which Bethlehem is most noted. Whether associated with the church or not, Manger Square fills with thousands. Multitudes of Muslims also come to witness the event.

But in smaller parishes quieter ceremonies occur on Christmas Eve. Franciscan Father Fergus Clarke is guardian of St. John in the Mountains Church, built at the traditional site of John the Baptist’s birth, and on Christmas commemorates the Magnificat – the Virgin Mary’s extended quote in Luke 1.

“Since we’re a very small community,” he says, “it’s extraordinary that on Christmas Eve our church is full of mostly Jewish people. For example, last year I counted only eight Christians present. Since the church is very small, holding about 110 people seated, when I say it was ‘full,’ I mean standing room only. These Jewish people arrive as early as 11:15 for midnight mass. What is really so edifying is that the Jews, predominately young, stand in complete reverence and silence for almost an hour and half. If you compare it to other churches you wouldn’t see such reverence and patience.

“Remember, the mass is celebrated in a foreign language for them, since we celebrate in Italian. The whole ritual is foreign to them, apart from the homily, which is given in English. But they come from as far away as Tel Aviv, and many call in advance to be sure they’ll be here on time. They come because of some sense of mystery or awe of the divine that comes from the ritual, the music, and their memories – transmitted from their parents, perhaps. For us it’s a very uplifting ceremony because of their presence and attitude.”

Fergus says the Israeli presence contributes to the “peace on earth, goodwill toward men” that Luke says the angels proclaimed at Jesus’s birth. “This year we are having an Israeli choir sing at midnight mass, and two years ago we had a Southern Baptist from Alabama sing a solo,” he said.

Protestants maintain no official presence in Bethlehem, although many visit for interdenominational “shepherds’ field” services convened by the YMCA in nearby Beit Sahur. Many attend local services in Jerusalem, such as those at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City, or at the Baptist Church near the city center.

Lindell Browning is a Nazarene minister living in Jerusalem. Browning’s tradition includes traditional “shepherds’ field” services.

“‘Shepherds’ field’ is wherever the shepherds are in Bethlehem; it’s not a specific field that we know of. There’s no way to know.”

Browning says he and friends read the birth narratives together from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, often asking one of the young people to read the account of angels singing “Glory to God in the Highest.” They sing carols, pray and share thoughts on the Christmas message.

Browning believes that in Jerusalem there is great stress placed on the angels’ declaration to secure peace on earth. “In this area of the world it’s something we pray for, something we want to see happen. Isaiah predicted the coming of a man who would be called the prince of peace, and that’s our declaration: Christ is the prince of peace for the world.”

Among Christians in Jerusalem there is less focus on the commercial aspects of the holiday. “I think there’s much less emphasis on shopping and much more interest in people that are less fortunate than us. There were a couple of years when we gave each other smaller gifts and gave gifts to needy families. There were other years on which we made gifts for each other so we could better give to those in need. Here too [in Jerusalem] there’s much more time because we don’t have the Christmas activities that we would in the States. So we get together with friends and share.”

For the majority of the Israeli population it is a normal work day. Some Jerusalem Christians do put up Christmas trees, as the Israeli government provides trees free. A few shops decorate their windows for the holiday, but for the most part, commercialism is subdued and the season is pared back to its devotional origins.

The Armenians, proceeding into Bethlehem on their Christmas Eve, summarize the motive for the march as they sing joyously “Great and Wonderful Mystery.” Greek Archbishop Aristochos says Christmas is in memory of the event “by which begins our salvation,” while Father Fergus calls for goodwill toward men. The Brownings and friends quietly find a hillside and try to imagine what the shepherds experienced, expressing their devotion in good works.

St. Nicholas would recognize a Jerusalem Christmas. The real Santa Claus: St. Nicholas was born in Patara, a Greek village (now Turkish) in the late third century. Although it’s difficult to distinguish legend from fact, scholars agree on several points about his life.

Nicholas was from a wealthy fishing family and was generous to young people. A story, regarded as accurate in its essence though shrouded in legend, holds that on three different occasions he provided dowries for poor girls, thus saving them from slavery. Tradition maintains that these dowries, tossed in through a window, were bags of gold that landed on stockings or shoes left near the fire to dry. Similar stories tell of Nicholas’s generosity in saving people from starvation.

Due to a wealth of popular support, Nicholas was elected bishop of Myra on the coast of modern Turkey in the early fourth century. About 330 CE he made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and was there for several weeks, often sleeping in a cave in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem. The St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church now stands over that cave.

Nicholas died about 350 CE on December 6 – a feast day that was already being celebrated only a few years after his death. Due to the day’s proximity to Christmas, as well as his generosity, Nicholas became caught up in the season’s lore.

Throughout much of Europe alms were given to the poor on this Saint’s day, and children were the special recipients of gifts. Medieval French nuns would distribute candies on December 6.

Nicholas began the transformation into Santa Claus mostly by way of German and Dutch immigrants to North America. Germanic St. Niklaas became Sinterklass, and eventually Santa Claus. Some less desirable aspects of northern European fable may have immigrated as well: His flying reindeer may stem from myths of the Norse god Wodin riding through the sky.

Reformers like Martin Luther tried to stop the metamorphosis, hoping to portray the baby Jesus (Christkindl in German) as the gift giver. Kris Kringle, derived from that German word, is now a synonym for Santa.

Nicholas’s image in Dutch-influenced New York changed from pious churchman to elf-like gift bearer. This picture became formalized by a few poems, notably the Christmas favorite “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (now known as “The Night before Christmas”) in 1823.

Currently burdened by commercialism, it’s hard to envision Santa’s prototype, the generous and devout Nicholas, making the dangerous trip to the Holy Land and sleeping in a cave in order to worship at the site of the first Christmas.

East is East and West is West: The early church can be roughly divided into East and West. The Eastern church, later Byzantium and the Eastern Orthodox liturgies, maintained different holidays, traditions and even doctrines than the Western church, which remained bound to Rome and the pope. Among the points of disagreement was the proper dating of Jesus’s birth – Christmas Day.

There is an ancient Jewish tradition that a prophet dies on the day of his conception, and the early church applied this formula to Jesus. Eastern and Western churches, through various and often questionable reasoning, determined respectively that Jesus died on April 6 and March 25. The Roman Catholic Church still celebrates the latter date as the Annunciation of the Birth. Adding nine months of pregnancy to those dates results in a December 25 or January 6 Christmas.

Scholars also hold that the December 25 date was especially appealing to the Western church because it replaced the birthday of Sol Invictus (invincible sun). Romans thought that on that day the sun began its ascent and the days began to lengthen. The pagan ceremony contained much revelry, drinking and immorality which the early church couldn’t condone. Sun worship was outlawed under penalty of death, in the hope that worship of the Son would replace it.

Clearly that did occur, but not without echoes of the pagan traditions surviving. Imbibing and, to a lesser degree, gift-giving and holiday lights are related to the pre-Christian feast. Still, the Eastern church maintained the January 6 date and combined it with Epiphany, the day of Jesus’s baptism.

Eventually, under pressure from the Western church as well as its own clergy’s inability to go to both the Jordan River and Bethlehem on the same day, a compromise was reached in the middle of the fifth century. Christmas would be celebrated December 25 and Epiphany on January 6 by both churches. This is simple enough, but when the Julian calendar was replaced by the Gregorian one, the Eastern church in Jerusalem continued using the old calendar. This results in a January 7 Christmas (December 25 plus 13 days).

Armenians refused the compromise, maintaining both the old January 6 date as well as the Julian calendar. Consequently Armenians celebrate Christmas on January 19 (January 6 plus 13 days).

A Multicultural Calendar

December 15 through January 6 > PUERTO RICO: NAVIDADES. Traditional Christmas season begins mid-December and ends on Three Kings Day. Elaborate nativity scenes, carolers, special Christmas foods and trees from Canada and the United States. Gifts given on Christmas Day and on Three Kings Day.

December 26 through January 1 > KWANZAA. American black family observance created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga in recognition of traditional African harvest festivals. Seven-day festival stresses unity of the black family, with a harvest feast (karamu) on the first day and a day of meditation on the final one. “Kwanzaa” means “first fruit” in Swahili.

January 1 > GREECE and CYPRUS: SAINT BASIL’S DAY. Saint Basil’s or Saint Vassily’s feast day observed by Eastern Orthodox Churches. Special traditions in Greece and Cyprus, include serving Saint Basil cakes, called Vasilopitta, each of which contains a coin. Feast day observed on January 14 by Orthodox Churches using the Julian calendar such as the Russian Church.

January 1 > NEW YEAR’S DAY > ANNIVERSARY OF THE OPENING OF ELLIS ISLAND. Opened on this date in 1892. Over the years, more than 20 million immigrants were processed through the stations. Island was also used as a point of deportation as well. In 1932 alone, 20,000 people were deported from there. Closed November 12, 1954 and declared a national park in 1956. Reopened as a museum in 1990.

January 1 > HAITI: INDEPENDENCE DAY. National holiday commemorating the proclamation of independence in 1804. Haiti, occupying the western third of the island Hispaniola (second largest of the West Indies), was a Spanish colony from its discovery by Columbus in 1492 until 1697. Then it was a French colony until independence was declared in 1804.

January 6 > GREECE and CYPRUS: THEOPHANY of the Eastern Orthodox Church is observed in Churches using the Gregorian calendar (January 19 in Churches using the Julian calendar). This feast day celebrates the manifestation of the divinity of Jesus at the time of His baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.

January 6 through February 20 > CARNIVAL SEASON. Secular festival preceding Lent. Time of merrymaking and feasting before the austere days of Lenten fasting and penitence (40 weekdays between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday). Depending on local custom, the season may start anytime between November 11 and Shrove Tuesday. Celebrations often include theatrical aspects such as masks, costumes and songs. Observed traditionally in Roman Catholic countries from Epiphany through Shrove Tuesday.

January 6 > EPIPHANY OR TWELFTH DAY. Known also as Old Christmas Day and Twelfthtide. On the twelfth day after Christmas, Christians celebrate the visit of the Magi, the first Gentile recognition of Christ. Epiphany of Our Lord, one of the oldest Christian feasts, is observed in Roman Catholic Churches in the United States on a Sunday between January 2 and January 8.

January 6 > ITALY: LA BEFANA. Epiphany festival in which the “Befana,” a kindly witch, bestows gifts on children, toys and candy for those who have been good, or a lump of coal or a pebble for those who have been naughty. Festival begins on the night of January 5 and continues with fairs, parades and other activities.

January 6 > THREE KINGS DAY. Major festival of the Christian Church observed in many parts of the world with gifts, feasting, last lighting of Christmas lights and burning of Christmas greens. Twelfth and last day of the Feast of the Nativity. Commemorates the visit of the Three Wise Neb (Kings or Magi) to Bethlehem.

January 7 > RUSSIA: CHRISTMAS OBSERVANCE.

January 8 > GREECE: MIDWIFE’S DAY OR WOMEN’S DAY. Honors midwives and all women. On this day, women stop their housework while the men do all the chores and look after the children.

January 17 > MEXICO: BLESSING OF THE ANIMALS AT THE CATHEDRAL. Church of San Antonio at Mexico City or Xochimilco provides best sights of chicken, cows and household pets gaily decorated with flowers. (Saint’s Day for San Antonio Abad, patron Saint of domestic animals.)

January 17 > POLAND: LIBERATION DAY. Celebration of 1945 liberation of the city of Warsaw from Nazi oppression on this day by Soviet troops. Special ceremonies at the Monument to the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw’s Victory Square (which had been called Adolf Hitler Platz during the German occupation).

January 17 > SAINT ANTHONY’S DAY. Feast day honoring Egyptian hermit who became the first Christian monk and who established communities of hermits; patron Saint of domestic animals and Patriarch of all monks. Lived about AD 251-354.

January 20 > FIRST OF MUHARRAM. Islamic New Year.

January 29 > ASHURA: TENTH DAY. For Shia Muslims, commemorates death of Muhammad’s grandson at the Battle of Karbala. A time of fasting, reflection and meditation. Jews of Medina fasted on the tenth day in remembrance if their salvation from Pharoah.

February 14 > VALENTINE’S DAY.

February 18 > CHINESE NEW YEAR.

February 19 > BEGINNING OF EASTERN ORTHODOX LENT.

February 21 > ASH WEDNESDAY.

April 8 > GREEK ORTHODOX EASTER.

Epiphany celebrations in Greece and Cyprus

Epiphany is a day full of symbolisms and traditions, during which our Church celebrates Jesus’ baptism in Jordan River by John the Baptist.

According to our popular tradition this is the day that the Elves, who have caused much discomfort to people during the holidays, leave the Earth. The celebration of this day has a particular protocol. In Athens, Mayor Bakoyannis will be present at the ceremony for the benediction of waters which will take place on Thursday at 10.30 in Dexameni in Kolonaki. After that, at 11.30, the Mayor will attend the ceremony taking place at the swimming pool of the National Gymnastics Club.

The feast of Epiphany is one of the oldest celebrations of the Christian Church. It was established in the 2nd century and it refers to the revelation of the Holy Trinity during Christ’s baptism. That is when the Holy Spirit appeared as a dove and sat on Jesus, while from above the voice of God was indicating Him as His beloved Son and His Chosen on Earth. It was established to be celebrated on January 6th, probably in order to coincide with the idolatrous celebrations of the early Christian years and to replace them.

During the first two centuries, the Christians also celebrated the Birth of Christ on the same day, but since the mid 4th century, when Pope Julius set December 25th as Christmas day, the feast of Epiphany has been celebrated separately. The Orthodox Church performs on this day the benediction of waters in the sea, in lakes, in rivers, even in water tanks. The name “Illuminations” (“Fota” in Greek), which we commonly use, has been established because on the day before the Epiphany the Church used to baptize the catechumen.

For all Greeks this day is connected with the casting of the Cross in the sea and with the effort of the bold ones to retrieve it from the – frozen this time of year – waters. The joy of the person who manages to get to the Cross first is a great one and the blessings of the priest accompany him for the whole year. On the day before the Epiphany, the neighborhood priest passes by the houses of his cogeneration in order to perform the customary blessing. It is the day that … the Elves fear the most – if we want to turn from our religious tradition to our folk one.

For more than two weeks the Elves are on Earth and they bother people with the capers they are pulling. During all these days they try to hurt people, but they do not succeed – clumsy as they are. The priest’s appearance in the houses on Epiphany day gives them the… finishing stroke and they disappear for once more in the bowels of the Earth. This is how the circle of tradition restarts until next Christmas when they will climb up again…

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 . . .”

Greek Carols for Christmas, New Year and Epiphany

A very old custom which remains today practically unchanged is Christmas Carols, which is called Kalanda [or Calanda] in Greek. Children, in groups of two or more, still make the rounds of houses singing carols, usually accompanied by the triangle or guitars, accordions or harmonicas.

The children go from house to house, knock on doors and ask: “shall we sing them?” If the homeowner’s answer is yes, the kids sing their favourite carols for several minutes before finishing up with the wish, “And for the next year, many happy returns”. Years ago the homeowners offered the children holiday sweets and pastries, but today they usually give them some money.

The carols are sung on the eves of Christmas, New Year and Epiphany, and they are different for each holiday.

The Greek word Calanda stems from the Latin, calenda, which translates as “the beginning of the month”. It is believed that the history of caroling goes deep into the past and connects with ancient Greece. In fact, they have even found carols written in those distant past days which are similar to the ones sung today. In ancient times the word for carols was Eiresioni, and children of that era held an effigy of a ship which depicted the arrival of the ancient god Dionysos. Other times they held an olive or laurel branch decorated with red and white threads, on which they would tie the offerings of the homeowners.

This Eiresioni song from the Homeric period can still be heard today – with small changes – in the carols of Thrace perfecture in Greece >

In this house we came of the rich-landlord

May its doors open for the wealth to roll in

The wealth and happiness and desired peace should enter

And may its clay jugs fill with honey, wine and oil

And the kneading tub with rising dough.

EPIPHANY CAROLS >
Today is the lights and the enlightment
The happiness is big and the sanctification
Down the Jordan River
Sits our Lady the Blessed Virgin Mary
She carries an organ, a candle she holds
And pleads with St. John.
St. John lord and Baptist
Baptize this divine child of mine
I shall ascend to the heavens
To gather roses and incense
Good day, good day
Good day to you master and the missus.

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