Why Your Ancestors Celebrated “Old Christmas”

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Old Christmas celebration, Rodanthe on Hatteras Island, Dare County, NC, January 5, 1953, photo by Gus Martin. From the North Carolina Conservation and Development Department, Travel and Tourism photo files, State Archives of North Carolina.
Old Christmas celebration, Rodanthe on Hatteras Island, Dare County, NC, January 5, 1953, photo by Gus Martin. From the North Carolina Conservation and Development Department, Travel and Tourism photo files, State Archives of North Carolina.

From the very beginning the families who settled the mountains of Appalachia have sought diligently to preserve their heritage, culture and language.  Even today, this pride of going against the grain may be spotted everywhere one looks in the hills and hollers of dusty coal mining communities and rural towns.

One Appalachian tradition that has been lost, however, is the celebration of “Old Christmas” — 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 had created it.

By the time white settlers began exploring the “Allegheny 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, the Julian Calendar had a major flaw — it was based on a 365-day year and did not take into account the fact that an actual year is roughly 365.25 days (to put it simply, it did not have a leap year).

This oversight 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 in 1582.

In Italy, Poland, Portugal and Spain, residents went to bed on October 4, 1582, and woke up the next morning on October 15, 1582.

In France, the switch came in December, with Peresians jumping from Sunday, December 9, 1582, to Monday, December 20, 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 weeks after the winter solstice and the Appalachian settlers didn’t take kindly to moving the most winter of holidays to only four days after autumn.

Thanks to being isolated from the rest of the nation, the men of the mountains 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.

In the years ahead, superstitions and lore would spread regarding to magical powers of old Christmas. It was even said that on Old Christmas Eve, the animals would kneel and even speak.

As an old Kentucky poem about Old Christmas proclaims,

“They’s heaps o’ folks here still believe,
On Christmas – that’s Old Christmas – Eve,
The elders bloom upon the ground,
And critters low and kneel around,
In every stall, though none I know
Has seen them kneel, or heard them low…”

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.

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: 2017: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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