Thursday, December 18, 2014

Old Christmas

The  "Julian Calendar" was introduced in 46 BC by Julius Caesar. The year was reckoned to be 365.25 days long (so a leap day was added every four years). However, the tropical, or solar year, is a few minutes shorter than the Julian year. As a result, the calendar year gained approximately three days every four centuries. By the 16th century the calendar was out of sync with the tropical year by ten days.

To correct the discrepancy, in 1582 Pope Gregory decreed that Catholic lands should adopt the "Gregorian Calendar." The new calendar dropped ten days. Thursday, October 4, 1582, was followed by Friday, October 15, 1582. According to Wikipedia, "The Gregorian calendar improves the approximation made by the Julian calendar by skipping three Julian leap days in every 400 years, giving an average year of 365.2425 mean solar days long."

A number of Protestant countries were reluctant to make the change, seeing the change as an attempt by the Pope to control them. However, by 1752 England and its colonies adopted the more accurate Gregorian calendar. By then the discrepancy amounted to 11 days. Christmas Day (December 25 in the "old style" calendar) then fell on January 5 (in the "new style" calendar).

Many residents of the Outer Banks resisted the change. One Ocracoke Island family refused to conform for many years, and continued to celebrate Old Christmas (January 5) into the twentieth century.

The small village of Rodanthe on Hatteras Island is one of a very few US communities that continue to celebrate Old Christmas, even today.

In 2015 the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars is 13 days. Thus, Old Christmas will technically fall on Jan 7, 2015. However, the residents of Rodanthe continue to celebrate Old Christmas on January 5, or the Saturday closest. In 2015 that would be January 3, although I have not seen any news about a 2015 event.
The Rodanthe Old Christmas celebration is traditionally a time for family and friends to gather for an oyster roast, live music, dancing, the arrival of "Old Buck," and occasionally a drunken brawl. It is not a tourist attraction. Yes, at least in the 1970s, a Rodanthe Old Christmas sometimes escalated to fist fights. I believe the celebration has been tamed in recent decades.  

For more information, do an Internet search for "Rodanthe Old Christmas." Or click here to view some vintage photos of the event:

You can read several pages about Old Christmas in Rodanthe in Jan DeBlieu's excellent book, Hatteras Journal,...or better yet, buy her book and read the entire chapter there!

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is the seldom told story of the 1837 murder of Willis Williams by Jacob Gaskill. You can read it here:


  1. Anonymous9:58 AM

    The images of the festivities one can find via an internet search look as if a National Geographic photographer was documenting the event during the 1950's. Now the color photos depict a generation clad in outfits that seem to defy placement in any particular decade. Which begs the question, do fashion trends influence the manner in which Ocracoke islanders dress?

  2. A good number of people that attend the celebration now, have little idea of the Old Christmas, Gregorian calendar relationship. They should all read this blog to learn about it. Having attended since the 70's, I find your description to be accurate.

    Whenever the fists started to fly, I went home. It's become a lot more tame these days and other than an occasional scuffle, the fighting has not been an issue. Even some outsiders and tourists come and have a good time.

    I've never eaten so many oysters any where else.
    For me the culmination is when Old Buck is led in by one of the keepers from the O'Neal family, usually around 9.
    He exits quickly after bumping into revelers on the dance floor. It's hilarious.

    The last time I blogged the event was in 2011:
    There's another entry I made in January 2009: