From our earliest of days, the people who settled the mountains of Appalachia have sought diligently to preserve their heritage, culture and language. Our much derided accent, ancient customs and mountain knowledge is a source of pride to millions of Americans.
Even today, there is a comfort and longing from folks all around to return to the mountains and hollers of Appalachia — back to a forgotten world that seems foreign to the modern world and its man conveniences.
Among these forgotten Appalachian traditions 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).
In the years that followed, leap years would be added periodically, but not enough and soon 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 Parisians 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 the though of celebrating Christmas, the premier “winter holiday” only four days past the close of 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.
In the years that followed, the settlers and mountain people of the hills had no choice but adopt the new calendar, allowing the government to “steal” those eleven days from their lives; however, in a final act of defiance, they resolved to continue celebrating Christmas precisely one year to the date their ancestors celebrated the holiday — which so happened to fall on January 7.
January 7 became the new date many of the families and communities selected to celebrate Christmas, Old Christmas.
The practice of celebrating “Old Christmas” in the Appalachian Mountains continued on for generations.
In the years that followed, superstitions and lore would spread regarding to magical powers of old Christmas. It was 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 same 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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