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The History of Christmas: Day 3 – Sacaea in Persia and Rhodes (450 BCE) December 20, 2012

Posted by Yarnspnr in History of Christmas.
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The History of Christmas
Day 3: Sacaea – Persia and Rhodes – 450 BCE


It is true that the tradition of replacing a ruler (later, any leader, government official or rich land owner) with a commoner can be traced from the Babylonians through the Greeks, who then passed it on to the Romans, with the practice ending up as the Misrule in England and America as part of the celebration of the Christmas season. There were differences, of course, especially in the earlier celebrations of the Sacaea in Persia and Greece.


The family of Hooshmand operated what would later be called a caravanserai, a shelter for caravans and pilgrims along a trade route. This inn stood some fifty miles to the northwest of ancient Persepolis. In approximately 490BCE, during the reign of the Persian King, Darius the Great, the caravan route between Persepolis and Pasargadae remained heavily traveled, and Hooshmand was a wealthy man. During the midwinter in Persia, Hooshmand gathered his family and slaves at the beginning of the festival of Sacaea.

The old man stood on a wooden dais and raised both hands to quiet the crowd of people gathered in his great hall. He and the rest of his relations were dressed in the attire of slaves.

“My family and loyal servants. It is time to begin the sacred celebration of Sacaea. I remind you that the business of the caravanseri must continue to be carried out with as little disruption as possible. As in the past, I rely on the integrity of my servants to carry on the rich traditions of this family and faithfully pursue the business as if it were your very own.”

Hooshmand’s family consisted of his three wives, fifteen children (ten of whom were married with children of their own), six brothers, their wives and children, four sisters, along with their families, plus an assortment of cousins, half-cousins, their families, and a collection of concubines. Over one hundred-fifty Greek slaves served the family of the caravanseri.

Both relations and slaves listened with growing anticipation. The concubines passed around wineskins and smells from the kitchen foretold of the fabulous feasts that all looked forward to with great expectancy.

“As you know, Erechtheus, our House Master, has been given my position during this season of Sacaea. Pythia, Marjan’s mistress, will act as his wife. Erechtheus has assigned the various positions of the household to the rest of you. My family looks forward to serving you during the holidays.”

With that, a roar of approval erupted from the crowd. The servants selected articles of fine clothing suitable to their new station as tables bearing robes and head pieces were uncovered. People congratulated Erechtheus with thumps to his back as the wine flowed even more freely. Dressed in their new ceremonial garb, the slaves and servants took charge of the caravanseri, shouting orders as the new ‘servants’ bowed in submission and readied themselves for the twelve days of work ahead.


Although the household of Eryximachos of Rhodes went through a similar transformation, young Pervica had something more malevolent on her mind.

Pervica shivered. Being newly married and with child throughout Sacaea frightened her. During the twelve day holiday, the Kallikantzaroi, a species of goblins, emerged from the center of the Earth to slip into people’s houses down their chimneys. More mischievous than actually evil, they would snuff out fires, ride upon people’s backs, braid the tails of horses, sour the milk, and perform other such pranks. To counter the Kallikantzaroi, Thessala, Pervica’s mother, made sure that a small wooden bowl with a piece of wire suspended across the rim found its way on to the main table. Water from the bowl and a sprig of basil would be sprinkled throughout the house as a defense against the Kallikantzaroi. Also old shoes would be burned in the family’s fireplace so the smell would act as a distraction.

But it was not the Kallikantzaroi themselves that Pervica feared. It was well known that any child born during the Sacaea runs the risk of becoming a Kallikantzaroi.

To divert herself from her fears, Thessala sent Pervica on a slave’s mission – riding a donkey to the miller’s to grind some corn meal for the festival. After arriving, Pervica called out for the miller to help her unload the two bags of corn to be milled. When no one answered, she entered in search of him – only to find him tied to his chair inside.

A number of black, hairy, Kallikantzaroi with glaring red eyes, huge heads, and mouths with blood red tongues hanging out, reached for her with their monkey arms and long fingers that ended in dangerous curved nails. They seized her and began arguing amongst themselves over which should have her for their own.

Pervica overcame her fears and told them she would become the wife of the one who presented her with the finest bridal gift. They immediately dispersed to look for fine clothing and jewelry.

Pervica went to work grinding the corn. Each time a Kallikantzaroi returned, she sent him on a fresh errand for something more. When she completed her grinding, she loaded the mule with the two sacks of meal. She clothed herself in the wealthy attire, gold and jewels that the Kallikantzaroi had already brought. She covered herself with a sack and headed home.

She eluded the Kallikantzaroi, who pursued her, and made it safely to her abode. One of them soon arrived at the door and found a colander on the stoop. He sat down, fascinated by the object and began to count the holes. But because he could not get past the number two, he soon became frustrated, dropped the utensil and left – forgetting why he was there.

Pervica breathed a sigh of relief and told her tale to her mother. She thought, if I do give birth during the Sacaea I will most certainly singe the toenails of my little one so he will not become one of those creatures.


An interesting footnote to this story is the Kallikantzaroi method of entering a home by climbing down the chimney. Another link to Christmas as we celebrate it today. The same could be said for the large family meals enjoyed by both groups. Those Kallikantzaroi, by the way, are the first of many types of fantasy folk to appear in sagas of the season.



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