As Christmas approaches and the excitement around our house continues to grow, our three-year-old son counts down the days to Christmas on his Advent calendar. Memories of last Christmas compounded with new ideas and understandings from Christmas movies, stories, and songs add to his uncontrollable excitement as Christmas day approaches. I enjoy this time of the year because of the Christmas spirit, thoughtfulness and kindness that seems to increase during Advent and Christmas. I also enjoy all of our traditions that fill the house with Christmas joy from Christmas trees, Santa Claus, reindeer, Frosty the snowman, and the nativity story.
Our house is also full of Christmas elves and gnomes. Since Christmas gnomes have been a newcomer to our family decorations, I thought I would delve a bit deeper into how they emerged into our culture. As I was researching stories about Christmas gnomes to share stories with my son, I came across many other traditions around the world that have not made it into our Christmas tradition in the United States, or at least are not widespread
One of the traditions that stuck out to me comes from Greece. In this particular cultural tale, there is a race of beings called kallikantzaroi. A kallikantzaros (singular) is a malevolent or impish goblin type of creature that is often depicted with a hairy body, goat legs, boar tusks, and/or donkey ears, but these depictions can vary widely in description and size. They are also associated with a malodorous smell that emanates from them. These creatures are unique in that they live underground for the majority of the year but they are able to surface from December 25th to January 6th as the sun seemingly ceases its movements in the heavens during the Twelve Days of Christmas or the winter solstice.
During their time on earth, they seek to cause mischief and mayhem to mortals. For the next 12 days they have fun creating impish mischief, though they are often thwarted by savvy humans who know how to trick, confuse, or deter their efforts with colanders, burning yule logs or smelly shoes in the fireplace, black crosses on doors, holy water, or hanging a pig jaw behind the front door or in the fire place.
At first glance, this seems like a horrible Christmas tradition on the surface where impish beings cause trouble during the Christmas season, but this time also serves a very important time for creation and the world. For the majority of the year these creatures saw at the roots of the World Tree or Tree of Life in an attempt to cut it down, making it collapse and thus destroying the entire world and everything in it. Their hard work throughout the year brings them near to completion of their task, but on Christmas morning when they are able to emerge in the world, they also get excited and quickly forget about their labors and surface to join the world of humans!
On Epiphany, the sun is observed moving again, Greek priests bless houses with holy water and basil, and the kallikantzaroi are forced to retreat underground to resume their work on sawing down the world tree. Forgetting about their task during their frivolity on Earth, they quickly come to remember their important task of cutting down the World Tree only to discover the shock and horror caused by their absence. During those few days they were gone, the World Tree was able to completely heal itself
thereby nullifying all their efforts from the previous year. They begin their task again hoping that this year they will succeed.
I’m not sure if this story resonated with me because of the chaos, confusion, and uncertainty of 2020, or if it is because of my affinity for cultural stories, supernatural beings, or trees and plants. One of the key takeaways for me is the resilience of God’s creation, humanity, and that spirit that we share which helps us endure and make the world a better place. During Advent we reflect on the time before the coming of the Christ child when the world was becoming complacent and in a spiritual rut guided by routines and rituals that had lost some of their sacred history and meaning. With the birth of Jesus, the world’s trajectory shifted in terms of understanding the nature of God, grace, love, joy, and a hopeful vision for the world that mirrors the realm of God. Jesus challenged cultural values, systems that strayed from their original purpose, and outlined new ways for listening to God, caring for others and creation, and embodying the fruits of the Spirit.
This has been a year of examining our routines and learning new ways to live that reflect our values, care for others, and keep us focused on the things that feed our spirit and nurture the sacredness in the world. I hope this has been a time for building relationships, strengthening our relationships with God, and being vessels of light and love into places that are dark, broken, and in need of healing.
In so many ways, this has been a difficult year for me, the camp, and ministries in our congregations. Yet, we have found new ways to be the church, take care of one another, and support our ministries. I truly believe that we are stronger, more equipped, and Spirit fueled to continue our ministries in 2021. Christmas is a joyful time to celebrate God entering the world in a very personal way, and I believe that the church is destined to continue to do great things next year and expand our mission of sharing God’s love, the gospel story, and creating a world where all are lifted up in mutual care and compassion. I hope that same excitement that my son experiences as Christmas approaches is similar to the excitement that each and every one of us feel about our relationship with God and sharing the gospel message.
Like the World Tree in the story, we are also created to be resilient and withstand forces that seem overwhelming. I look forward to hearing stories throughout the year of your ministries and things that build excitement whether individually or as a family, church, or community. Please send them to me in whatever format you desire – letters, phone calls, videos, pictures, and so on. I would love to use some of your stories at camp this coming summer to illustrate the power of God in the world and our vibrant faith in action.
Blessings and Peace,