Mountain Legend: Night of Jan. 6, Animals Talk

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Photo courtesy of Ernst Vikne
Photo courtesy of Ernst Vikne

Tonight, Jan. 6, 2018, is Christmas Eve night, or at least it would have been had the powers that be during the Renaissance Period left our calendars alone.

The development of the Julian Calendar some 2000+ years ago helped standardize the 365-day year and put most of the world’s nations onto the same calendar; however, it had one major flaw – it did not take into account the fact that a year is actually 365.2425 days in length.  Hence it had no leap years.

Initially, this wasn’t that big of a deal, but by the late-1500s, the seasons were really beginning to get messed up and if left unchecked, in a short matter of time, months would be completely out of their respective seasons.

To rescue the calendar and to get things back on track, in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII made the decision to remove 10 days from the calendar.

Though the Pope’s edict was initially only accepted by Spain, Portugal, France, Poland, and Italy, in the centuries ahead, one by one, all the kingdoms of Europe followed suit, and in 1752 even Protestant Great Britain adopted the internationally accepted change, moving their calendar ahead eleven days in order to catch up with the rest of the world.

However, the Crown’s decision to leap from March 25 to April 5 overnight in 1752 was not well received by the mountain folk across the pond in what is now the Appalachian Mountains of America.

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 observed a handful of weeks after the winter solstice and many of the mountain folk were unwilling to celebrate the holiday just a few days past autumn.

Even after the American continent – including Appalachia – embraced the new calendar, the practice of celebrating “Old Christmas” in the 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.

Lost too, are the beliefs that accompany Old Christmas: Namely, on the night before Old Christmas, animals develop supernatural powers, giving them the ability to 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…”

A word of caution, however, to that soul who may be tempted to go outside once the Appalachian sun sets this evening in hopes of listening to a cow, horse or dog speak — it was believed to have been bad luck to ever overhear animals speaking on Old Christmas Eve.

Have a good night Appalachia.  And yes, have a very merry [Old] Christmas!

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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