Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Old Christmas

As we enter the Christmas season (actually the Advent season according to the ecclesiastical calendar) I am reminded of "Old Christmas" customs on the Outer Banks. In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII shortened the official year by eleven minutes and fifteen seconds as a correction to the inaccurate Julian calendar of his time. He also deleted ten days to bring his new calendar into sync with the solar cycle. All Catholic countries immediately complied. Protestant countries resisted the change for many years.

Great Britain and the American colonies did not switch to the Gregorian calendar until September, 1752, when eleven days (September 3-13) were dropped from the calendar in order to make the correction. In that year December 25 (on the "old" calendar) was January 5, 1753 (on the "new" calendar).

Apparently villages along the Outer Banks did not hear about the change until some years later. Many Bankers refused to go along with the change and continued to celebrate Christmas according to the Julian calendar. By 1801, as the calendars drifted farther apart, "Old Christmas" now fell on January 6. Although Old Christmas has fallen on January 7 since 1900, it has become traditional to continue to celebrate Old Christmas on January 6. I am assuming that this is because December 25 corresponded to January 6 for 100 years, and for most people the original reason for the difference had been forgotten.

For many years several Ocracoke families celebrated only Old Christmas. Today only a few islanders mark both holidays.

In Rodanthe on Hatteras Island villagers have been celebrating Old Christmas for more than two hundred years with a community oyster roast on a Saturday afternoon, and a party in the evening with the appearance of "Old Buck," a costumed islander playing a mythical wild bull. According to legend, a wild bull terrorized medieval English villagers many years ago until a hunter finally killed him. It seems the earliest settlers brought the custom with them to the Outer Banks.

Sad to say, I have never attended an Old Christmas celebration at Rodanthe. Even though it is primarily an event for locals rather than a tourist attraction, I'm told that visitors are welcome. It is held during the first week of January. You can learn more, including the exact date, by googling "Old Christmas Rodanthe."


Village Craftsmen's hand made island soaps are among our most popular gift items. Click on the photo below to go directly to our Andromeda Soaps page.

Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter discusses place names on Ocracoke. You can read it here: http://www.villagecraftsmen.com/news113009.htm.


  1. Anonymous9:42 AM

    January 6 IS Christmas in the Eastern Orthodox tradition and Epiphany in Western tradition (January 5th is "Twelfth Night"--as in the 12 days of Christmas). In legend, the 6th is the day the Magi arrived at the stable.

    So there may be more than calendrical confusion occurring here.

  2. Maybe some of our readers can shed light on this issue. I too, had always thought that January 6 (in the Gregorian calendar) corresponded to Christmas in the Eastern tradition. However, see http://www.calendarhome.com/converter/. If you set the Julian date to 2009, December 25 the Gregorian date resets to 2010, January 7. This, of course, is consistent with the drift of the less accurate Julian calendar from January 5 in 1753 to January 7 in 2010. If the Eastern church is still using the old Julian calendar shouldn't Christmas fall on the "new" January 7?

    As I write I am searching the web for the answer. I discovered the following at http://www.religionfacts.com/christianity/holidays/christmas.htm:

    "The Eastern church celebrated Christ's birth and baptism on January 6 until the middle of the 5th century, when the December date for Christmas was adopted there as well and Jesus' baptism was celebrated on January 6. An exception to the December date is the Armenian Church, which continues to commemorate both the birth and baptism of Christ on January 6.

    "Although Orthodox Churches celebrate Christmas on December 25, some still use the Julian calendar ("old calendar") for their religious calendar. The Julian calendar is the predecessor to the Gregorian calendar ("new calendar") that is now the civil calendar of the western world. The Julian calendar is 13 days different from the Gregorian, so December 25 on the Julian calendar occurs on January 7 on the Gregorian calendar and Epiphany on January 19. Those who use the Julian calendar include the Churches of Jerusalem, Russia and Serbia, and the monasteries on Mt. Athos."

  3. Anonymous4:48 AM

    Well, in my opinion, with so many families blended and separated by distance and other situations the Christmas Season is just that a season --a period to do what you feel needs to be done -- well do it and enjoy the time -- the notion that everything has to happen on a particular day is madness-- as this calendar situation unearths it was a CONTROL issue just like most religions-- it is a CONTROL issue and people are shunned blacklisted for not following in the manner the CONTROLLER sees fit. if the followers were doing the helping and the neighborly things through out the year perhaps boiling it day down to one day to Feel good -- well that has gone out the window because the headlines are about electronic hamsters and how one test determines them harmful and an other test determines the hamsters are fine so go spend the money on the electronic hamster and for get about feeding the poor