[Spotlight] In old N.C. traditions, it’s not Christmas yet!
“Don’t get excited; we’re not opening presents until Old Christmas.”
My father used to torment me with that joking threat. On Christmas Eve, he’d look at the presents under the tree and say “let’s keep them wrapped for the whole 12 days of Christmas.” When I’d inevitably pout, he’d tell me with a straight face that the best thing about presents was waiting to unwrap them. “They can’t disappoint you until you do that.”
Donald Ivon McDowell, who mixed his cynicism with sentimentality, mythologized his Scots heritage. He’d read somewhere that in the highlands and islands of the “auld” country, Christmas was celebrated on Jan. 6.
I also remember my mother, in her early days in the hospital, telling me that next year, when she was better, we’d go to the Outer Banks, where Old Christmas was still celebrated on the island of Rodanthe with a huge oyster roast. As I’d not yet acquired my love of the bivalves, that didn’t sound exciting, but the next part did. “When everybody’s had their fill, Old Buck comes crashing in!”
I asked who or what Old Buck was. She explained that every year islanders would pick “a great huge man” to wear a costume topped with a wild bull’s skull and horns, who would “lead the revels” in a torchlit procession down the beach. “It’s all so delightfully pagan,” I can remember her saying with that witchy smile of hers. I didn’t know what pagan meant, but it sure sounded awesome.
They aren’t the only place that Old Christmas has been celebrated in North Carolina. In the mountains, it was also known as Breaking Up Christmas. Up until the mid-20th century, people in Blue Ridge communities would continuously celebrate from Dec. 25 until Jan. 6, taking turns hosting feasts and closing out the 12-day festival with a communal hoedown. That’s safer than how Jan. 6 was celebrated at the other end of the state. My great-uncle Olan Barnes told me that when he was a boy, a rowdy friend of his with kin on that island journeyed there for the “big Christmas fight” and died of his injuries. Uncle Olan said that, on Rodanthe, the islanders celebrated Old Christmas not just with oysters and moonshine and Old Buck, but an annual island-wide drunken brawl!
Some Amish and Moravian communities still celebrate Old Christmas, although neither are known for brawling on that day. They observe Christmas on Jan. 6 for the same reason that the Orthodox Church does so on Jan. 7, the Julian calendar.
The Julian calendar includes two types of year, those that are 365 days long and leap years of 366 days, in a cycle of three normal years followed by a leap year. Due to this, the Julian calendar gained about three days every four centuries, compared to equinox times and the seasons. This discrepancy was largely corrected by the Gregorian reform of 1582.
Protestants kept the old calendar for two centuries. By the time England adopted the new calendar in 1752, they were 11 days off from the rest of Europe. They dropped those days, and Christmas was moved back to Dec. 25. Some villages believed the 11 days had been stolen from them, and riots erupted.
The news of the change did not reach the colonists living in North Carolina until after 1752. They continued celebrating on the old Christmas day, ignoring the new date even after they received the news. England did not care, and violence was avoided…except on Rodanthe.
If anyone reading this has family (or other) memories of “the big Christmas fight” on that island, please email my editor at firstname.lastname@example.org, and she’ll forward it to me. It might make a good article for next year.