Why Early Appalachian Settlers Originally Celebrated Christmas in January



    Ask any of the millions of children scattered throughout the Appalachian Mountains what day of the year Christmas is on and you will undoubtedly hear, “December 25th”.  Everyone from Northern Alabama to the Katahdin Summit in Maine knows that it is on this date that Santa Claus comes to town.

    Interestingly, if you had been roaming the Appalachian hillsides only a few centuries ago, the answer to this same question would have produced a far different date — January 7th.

    To understand why the early inhabitants of Appalachia celebrated Christmas two weeks after December 25th, we must first jump back in time nearly a half-century before the birth of Christ and visit the Roman Empire.

    In the year 46 BC, Julius Caesar proposed a new calendar to be used throughout the entire Roman Empire — prior to this time, the land had been relying upon a convoluted system in which years ranged from 355 days to 383 days in length and had very little in common with the tropical year.

    Caesar proposed a 365-day year and changed the first date of the year to January 1st: and the modern-day calendar we still use today was birthed… or at least conceived.

    Caesar’s calendar, known as the Julian Calendar, was well received and even outlived the Roman Empire that created it.

    By the time white settlers began exploring the “Alleghany Mountains” (old name for Appalachian Mountains), the Roman Calendar was serving as the predominant calendar throughout Europe, the settlements in the Americas and elsewhere.

    In the meantime, somewhere around the year 336 AD, December 25th began serving as a Christian observed holiday — eventually becoming known as “Christmas”, acting as a symbolic observance of Christ’s birth.

    Unfortunately for the Julian Calendar, its flaws became so problematic that by the late-1500s, Roman Catholic Pope Gregory XIII felt that it was time to modify leap years and get things back on track with the astronomical calendar — this was primarily done so that the Easter holiday would be restored to the time of the year in which it was celebrated when first introduced by the early Church.

    Gregory’s revisions, which removed ten days from the calendar was accepted by Spain, Portugal, France and Italy on October 15, 1582, the date that succeeded October 4, 1582.

    In the centuries ahead, one by one, the nations of Europe followed suit, even protestant Great Britain and her American colonies in 1752.

    Staunchly anti-Catholic, the fiercely independent Scots-Irish who had, by the mid-1700s, began settling the Appalachians were adamantly opposed to the notion of embracing a new calendar — a new calendar invented by Catholics and adopted by some distant government on the far side of the ocean.

    The people of the mountains were unwilling to allow the government “to steal eleven days” from their lives.

    “Christmas had long been celebrated… a couple of weeks after the winter solstice, and many people were not willing to celebrate Christmas on an earlier date…” writes Tony Blair, of the Mountain Eagle.

    Thanks to being isolated from the rest of the nation, the pioneers of Appalachia continued “to celebrate Old Christmas 12 Days after the December 25th celebration date set by the new calendar.”

    The practice of celebrating “Old Christmas” in the Appalachian Mountains continued on for generations.

    Nearly all of the modern Christmas traditions we know today were born during the 1800s, and it was during this time that the sons of many of the Appalachian mountianmen surrendered to celebrating on December 25.

    Today, there remain a few holdouts who continue to celebrate “Old Christmas” in the Appalachian hills; however, they are a dwindling number.  In another generation or two, celebrating “Old Christmas” will be just another forgotten part of Appalachian history.

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    1. My ancestors lived in Eastern North Carolina and up until 1900 or so celebrated Old Christmas on January 6, “Epiphany”.

    2. Story is almost correct. They celebrate Christmas on Dec 25! It is those on the Pope’s calendar who think it is Jan 7. It will not die out for a long time. You see the majority of Orthodox Christians in the world still use the Julian Calendar. (In USA there is a split of Orthodox Christian between the two calendars.) As long as the majority of Orthodox Christians continue to follow the Julian Calendar, Christmas will be on Dec 25 which to you using the Pope followers calendar think is January 7th. Ya at work and out side the home I use the Pope Calendar, but at home Julian. Today for you is Tuesday December 27, 2016 for me it is Tuesday December 14, 2016. By the way I am not in the Appalachian mountains, but very happy to see other folks who do not celebrate Christmas early in mid December!

    3. I grew up in eastern NC and my mother told me about hearing “old timers” speak about celebrating Old Christmas on January 6.

    4. There is also a connection with the 12 days of Christmas beginning on 12/25 and many Catholics I know do their gift giving on Epiphany (1/6)

    5. This is still practiced by the Russian/Polish Catholice here in Northeastern PA. They refer to it as “Russian” Christmas.

    6. The whole of the Russian Orthodox Church continues to use the Julian Calendar not only for Christmas but all year round.

    7. I forgot to add that the drift added one day in 1900. The Julian date is now matching Jan 7. I guess word of the Gregory Calendar extra leap day did not reach that area. The next day is 2200. In 2201, Christmas is on Gregory date January 8, but it is still Dec 25th.

      • No, the next year it will change is March 1, 2100, which means OC Christmas will be on Jan 8, 2101. your post about 1900 is also wrong. The year 2000 skipped a leap day, as do all centuries divided by 400.

    8. correction The Gregorian system skipped having a leap day in 1900. Julian calendar did have leap day. My post made it seem the reverse.

    9. From a financial point of view, celebrating Christmas on Jan. 7th would save $$ with all the “after Dec. 25th” markdowns, etc. 🙂

      • Liz — Please take a look at the link you shared:

        “The word “Allegheny” was once commonly used to refer to the whole of what are now called the Appalachian Mountains. John Norton used it (spelled variously) around 1810 to refer to the mountains in Tennessee and Georgia.[2] Around the same time, Washington Irving proposed renaming the United States either “Appalachia” or “Alleghania”.[1] In 1861, Arnold Henry Guyot published the first systematic geologic study of the whole mountain range.[3] His map labeled the range as the “Alleghanies”, but his book was titled On the Appalachian Mountain System. As late as 1867, John Muir—in his book A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf—used the word “Alleghanies” in referring to the southern Appalachians.

        There was no general agreement about the “Appalachians” versus the “Alleghanies” until the late 19th century.[1]

    10. The Catholic Church, both Western and Eastern, still celebrates Christmastide as a season lasting for a few weeks rather than just a day (See General Norms IV:32-38 for basics). Evening prayer of Dec. 24th to Jan. 1st is called the Christmas Octave, each day considered as solemn as Dec. 25th itself and based on the Biblical observance of eight-day festivals (Lev. 23:36). The whole season culminates with Epiphany (the Wisemen) on Jan. 6th and ends with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord after that date. Some Oriental & Eastern Orthodox Churches that still use the Julian calendar celebrate the Nativity on Jan. 7th and culminate with Theophany (Baptism) on Jan. 19th. The Armenians are unique in celebrating the Nativity on Jan. 6th. It is ironic that some anti-Catholic groups of the past refused to follow the Gregorian calendar, yet they still celebrated the feasts days set by the Church (Christmas and Easter) which aren’t found in the Bible but only in ancient Catholic tradition. Plus, the word Christmas means “Christ’s Mass”, a Catholic portmanteau. But it’s good that even at the height of tensions between non-Catholics and Catholics in the South there was something sacred and beautiful like Christmas to unify everyone, even if the days were not completely in sync.

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