Old Christmas Day celebrations

Then and Now > Chances are that you have never heard of Old Christmas Day also known as Little Christmas Day. But it is one of those little known facts that people in the North Carolina area and Eastern Tennessee would celebrate Old Christmas Day as well as Christmas Day.

Children a few hundred years ago got to celebrate both days and received gifts on both days. Old Christmas Day or Little Christmas Day was celebrated 12 days after Christmas Day. It was sometimes called Twelfth Day or Epiphany.

This custom was brought over to America from England hundreds of years ago. There is one small town in North Carolina, Rodanthe, that still celebrates both days. The custom was handed down from English ancestry who settled years ago along that area.

In the small town of Rodanthe there were two neighborhoods. They were about a mile apart. On Christmas Day the people of one neighborhood would go over to the other neighborhood. Then 12 days later the trip was reversed. You will have to understand that they didn’t have things we have today to make music and entertain with.

For example, early on Christmas Day one would hear the sound of faint music from a fife. As the music volume increased one would realize that someone would be coming down the street with a fife and drum. Along with the music makers would be the local Sunday School members who marched in rows like they would do every Sunday from one end of the community to the other holding prayers in houses as they went along.

By noon they reached a central point and a large table is spread like a picnic with all the customary things of Christmas time. Then the homes that were not visited in the morning were visited in the afternoon for prayers. In the evening the entire population would gather for fun and games. They would masquerade in true English style. Both children and grown-ups dressed in old clothes and covered their faces with dark stockings and jostled each other in the crowd. The climax of the evening was the appearance of “Old Buck.” Not Santa Claus.

Old Buck was in reality the bony structure of a cow’s head, including the horns, through which a pole was run with blankets thrown over the pole and two men underneath providing the moving power. He had a bell around his neck and it rang merrily. The fife and drum were also present to furnish music for the occasion. The fife was made from local reeds grown about the area. The drums were made from sheep’s hide. All the men and boys got together for weeks before the season and played ball. Another game of sport was shooting the bull’s eye. The winner won a chicken or duck as a prize.

The girls enjoyed the neighborhood “candy bilin.” Several women would get together and boil molasses or sugar candy and the candy was “pulled.” Other games were played while the candy was cooling with the soon expectations of the sweet taste for all. There was no Santa Claus they celebrated with but Old Buck, which was a tradition, brought over from their English relatives.

Many of the present day folks remember what they heard when they were children about Old Christmas. Some of the customs remembered were not washing bed sheets between the Christmas’s thinking that if you did it would bring bad luck. Decorations were not taken down and ashes were not removed from the fireplace until after January 6.

People today honor Old Christmas by keeping the wreath of bayberry, pine and cedar up until January 7 and also their Christmas trees. Many still remember the Old Christmas celebration but don’t remember why they do it. They just knew it was done back in the early part of the 1900s and they still carry on the practice.

One person told me that they were told that the Old Christmas was the original Christmas but it was moved to December 25 to be more suitable. Another told me that the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was a way of keeping the Christian spirit alive in symbolic form. One of the most interesting stories told to me was that when they were growing up they celebrated Epiphany (January 6) by putting one of their shoes on the fireplace the night before. In the morning they would find a little gift from the “wise men.” Instead of a stocking hung on the mantle some tell that they used shoeboxes that were filled with oranges and nuts by the morning.

One Response to “Old Christmas Day celebrations”

  1. Harv Hopkins-Garriss

    Thank you for your article. My father (1907-1983) grew up celebrating Old Christmas on his Northampton County, N.C. farm. He never told me much about his childhood, but his sister-in-law told me what she could remember. I have been looking for information for family genealogy projects.
    Earlier research indicated that Jan. 6 is significant because on this day the sun rises exactly between the horns of Aires. Some sort of celebration on this day connected with horned animals can be found around the world as far back as history can trace. In some European cultures the day is connected with the Greenman, the Stag King, and the Horned God and is the winter complement to the summer vegetation rites. I read that there is one place in tidewater North Carolina that this is still celebrated (this article is quite old) though most of the parts and meaning are forgotten.
    I believe my father’s family gave out the Christmas presents on Jan. 6. When we raised rabbitts, Daddy did have us go out on Christmas Eve to see if we could hear the animals talk.