They are malevolent goblins in Southeastern European (Greek, Bulgarian, Serbian) and Anatolian folklore (Turkey). They dwell underground but come to the surface during the twelve days of Christmas, from 25th December to 6th January (from the winter solstice for a fortnight during which time the sun ceases its seasonal movement).
It is believed that Kallikantzaroi stay underground sawing the World tree, so that it will collapse, along with Earth. However, when they are about to saw the final part, Christmas dawns and they are able to come to the surface. They forget the Tree and come to bring trouble to mortals.
Finally, on the Epiphany (6th January), the sun starts moving again, and they must go underground again to continue their sawing. They see that during their absence the World tree has healed itself, so they must start working all over again. This happens every year.
There is no standard appearance of Kallikantzaroi, there are regional differences on their appearance.
The Greeks describe them as:
- Hairy bodies.
- Horse legs.
- Boar tusks (sometimes).
- Burning red eyes.
- Goat’s or donkey’s ears.
- Monkey’s arms.
- Tongues that hang.
- Huge heads.
Others see them as humans of small size smelling horribly, that are predominately male. However, different regions both have the similar description of them resembling a little, black devil.
They are, also, mostly blind, speak with a lisp and love to eat frogs, worms, and other small creatures.
The Kallikantzaroi are said to be the creatures of the night. There were many ways people could protect themselves during the days when the Kallikantzaroi were loose. They could leave a colander on their doorstep to trick the visiting Kallikantzaros. Since they could not count above 2 (3 is a holy number and by pronouncing it he would kill himself) the Kalikantzaros would sit at the doorstep counting, 1, 2… 1, 2… each hole of the colander, all night, until the sun rose and he were forced to hide.
Another method of protection was to leave the fire burning in the fireplace, all night, so that they cannot enter through there. In some areas, they would burn the Yule log, a large piece of wood, for the duration of the twelve days. And in other areas, people would throw smelly shoes in the fire, the stink repulsing the Kallikantzaroi and forcing them to stay away. Yet other ways to keep them away were to mark the door with a black cross on Christmas Eve and burn incense.
Legend has it that any child born during the twelve days of Christmas was in danger of transforming to a Kallikantzaros for each Christmas season, starting with adulthood. The antidote: Binding the baby in tresses of garlic or straw, or singeing the child’s toenails. In another legend, anyone born on a Saturday can see and talk with the Kallikantzaroi.
(According to a source) on the eve of Epiphany in Cyprus, villagers scatter pancakes on the roof to give the Kallikantzaroi something sweet to eat as they prepare to head out of town.
In Serbian Folklore
In Serbian Christmas traditions, the Twelve Days of Christmas used to be called the “unbaptised days” and were considered a time when demonic forces of all kinds were believed to be more than usually active and dangerous. People were cautious not to attract their attention, and did not go out late at night. The latter precaution was especially because of the demons called karakondžula, imagined as heavy, squat, and ugly creatures.
According to tradition, when a karakondžula found someone outdoors during the night of an unbaptised day, it would jump on the person’s back and demand to be carried wherever it wanted. This torture would end only when roosters announced the dawn; at that moment the creature would release its victim and run away.
In Anatolian Folklore
The karankoncolos is a malevolent creature in Northeast Anatolian Turkish folklore. According to late Ottoman Turkish myth, they appear on the first ten days of Zemheri, “the dreadful cold”, when they stand on murky corners, and ask seemingly ordinary questions to the passers-by. In order to escape harm, one should answer each question, using the word “kara" (the Turkish word for "black"), or risk being struck dead by the creature. It was also said in Turkish folklore that the karakoncolos could call people out during the cold Zemheri nights, by imitating voices of loved ones. The karakoncolos’ victim risked freezing to death if he or she could not awake from the charm.