Appalachia Christmas Holidays in Appalachia

Old Christmas

January 6 is old christmas

Today, January 6th, is celebrated as Old Christmas by some folks. Truth be told, I never even heard of Old Christmas until I started the Blind Pig.

This website gives a fairly clear explanation for January 6th being called Old Christmas. In a nutshell the term came about when the Julian Calendar was switched over to the Gregorian Calendar. Before the calendar change, Christmas fell on January 6th-after the change many people kept the old day of Christmas instead of moving the day to December 25th as the new calendar suggested. Old Christmas came along to Appalachia with those first settlers from the British Isles-like so many of our other traditions

John Parris explains Old Christmas in western NC very well:

But in another age-back when a changing world walked ever so slowly in the hidden hills-many a mountain family celebrated Jan. 6 as the day of our Lord’s birth.

They came of English or Pennsylvania Dutch stock and they passed on to their children some of the ballads and folklore their forebears fetched over from the Old Country.

When my grandfather was growing up a hundred years ago over in the Macon County hills, many a mountain family still clung to the old tradition.

“When I was a boy,” he used to recall, “a heap of folks kept Christmas on Jan. 6. The old folks said it was the real Christmas. They argued that the Christmas we’ve come to keep on Dec. 25 was a man-made Christmas.”

Unlike New Christmas with its gaiety and feasting, Old Christmas was celebrated with prayer and choral-singing.

To the folks of that long ago era there were 12 days of Christmas beginning Dec. 25 and ending Jan. 6.

On Old Christmas Eve, just before the clock on the fireboard scratched for midnight, the family gathered about the hearth. There was the telling of The Story and talk of the night when miracles come closest to earth. The old ones told the young ones if they would go out at midnight they would see cow brutes and nags kneeling. They said that all the cattle and horses everywhere stood up and then lay down on the other side. This, the old one said, was the sign that Jan. 6 was for truth our Lord’s birth night.

They said too that alder buds burst and leafed out on Old Christmas Eve and that the bees would roar in the bee-gum like they wanted to swarm. Some said that water turned to wine at midnight of Old Christmas. My grandfather said he never believed this, albeit he went to the spring many a time just to see.

There were those who said it was bad luck to watch for Old Christmas signs a-purpose. “If you just happen to see a sign, it’s all right,” they said. “But if you try to watch, somethin’s liable to get you.”

Except for the water-into-wine belief, Grandpa held with the other signs. “I’ve seen the cows get down on their knees,” he said. “And I’ve heard the low mooin’ of the cows and the whinny of the nags in the night of Old Christmas Eve. Right at midnight that was. Then they all got quiet. I knew other folks who had seen it too.”

With the arrival of Old Christmas, many a family brought out a jug of sweet cider and sang:

Love and joy come to you, And to your wassail too And God bless you and send you A happy New Year, And God send you a Happy New Year. 

Have you ever celebrated Old Christmas? Or knew someone who did?


*Parris, John. Old Christmas These Storied Mountains. 1972. Print.

You Might Also Like


  • Reply
    Dona DiBernardo Silver
    March 3, 2021 at 8:54 am

    My family always celebrated Little Christmas That is what my parents called Jan 6th. We were taught that it took the wise men 12 days to reach the baby Jesus in the stable and present their gifts.
    On little Christmas all us children were given a final present to open. It was always magical. To my young mind I thought Jesus was actually opening presents while we all opened ours.
    My family will always celebrate little Christmas

  • Reply
    January 7, 2013 at 5:54 am

    Patsy-thank you for the comment! So glad you like the Blind Pig!!! I think the photo is on this page:

  • Reply
    José Luis
    January 7, 2013 at 10:30 am

    Dear Lady Tipper
    I read with joy that Mr. Bradley had commented that he liked my small contribution to your beautiful and constant work of spreading the culture of your neighbors and those who preceded them in Appalachia.
    I understand that my comments are not just about things that happened on this land, but I think it might be fun to learn something from my country, which was also made ​​up of immigrants, with food, music and customs of their hometowns.
    Spanish, Italian, Irish, (Admiral William Brown, founder of our Navy, born in County Mayo, Ireland), German, Polish, Russian, Welsh in Patagonia, finally a good mix of customs, but with a single objective, progress and hard work.
    Receive a cordial greeting to all of you neighbors in the Appalachian Mountains, part of the American South, God Bless, José Luis.

  • Reply
    Patsy Poor
    January 6, 2013 at 9:25 pm

    I misspeled writing and said weitting. sorry
    some of my family came to the ozarks from N. C. and we use some of the saying that you post from your part of the country.
    i really enjoy your posts.

  • Reply
    Patsy Poor
    January 6, 2013 at 9:18 pm

    I enjoy your writings but HELP, a week ago I came across a post you made in the past and have searched every day since trying to find the photo.
    it was a photo of you and your husband each of you are holding a girl on your lap while setting at the table eating . would you be good enought to tell me where it is, I am going crazy looking for it.please

  • Reply
    Mary Rutherford
    January 6, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    I have celebrated Old Christmas for years but in a much quieter way than Mrs. Lockman. I wish I could have spent every one of them with her family and friends – their celebrations sound so perfect! We have always put our tree up on the eve of Christmas and taken it down on Old Christmas. I add the three Kings to my nativity on this day, we have a special dinner and time together as a family.

  • Reply
    January 6, 2013 at 9:10 pm

    I’ve never heard of the Old Christmas, but how interesting!!

  • Reply
    Janet Smart
    January 6, 2013 at 7:42 pm

    we’ve never celebrated Old Christmas. I never heard about it until someone told me about a superstition Grandma had about Old Christmas, and I said what is Old Christmas? My cousin was putting out the wash when Grandma came over and made her take it down. She said it was bad luck and there would be a death in the family if she hung up the wash on Old Christmas.

  • Reply
    Allison P. Britt
    January 6, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    Enjoyed todays ‘Old Christmas’ post on Blind Pig! Just read a newspaper post about Phipps Store in Lansing, NC, near where I grew up, having an annual ‘Breakin up Christmas Jam’.
    Phipps proprietor, James “Dawg” Woods, said the gathering has gotten a bit bigger each year, and estimated that as many as 200 came out for the up-county musical event of the season, which sometimes goes until 3 a.m.
    According to Woods, “breakin’ up Christmas” is a term for an old mountain tradition of households in a community sharing the chores and expenses of holiday hosting.
    “During old Christmas, every night they’d go from cabin to cabin, take out the furniture, and they’d have a big eat and a frolic,” he said.
    In years past I haven’t heard as much about ‘Old Christmas’ as I have this year.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    January 6, 2013 at 4:31 pm

    I have a strong suspicion that John Alvis Parris Jr.s grandmother Jennie Wild Tallent is my 1st cousin 3X removed. There are several online family trees that make the connection but I haven’t seen enough proof yet. If anyone knows anything about his family, I would sure like to be related to him.

  • Reply
    Brother James
    January 6, 2013 at 4:22 pm

    The Russian Orthodox Church and a few other Orthodox Christian Churches still celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7, which is Dec.25 on the old Julian Calendar.
    Brother James in Greenville

  • Reply
    Vicki Lane
    January 6, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    Great post, Tipper, and I enjoyed all the comments. The first time I heard of Old Christmas was in Lee Smith’s FAIR AND TENDER LADIES. I haven’t known anyone here in Madison County who celebrates it.

  • Reply
    January 6, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    Mr. Jose Luis you have such a sincere and pleasing way of expressing your thoughts. Please comment more often.

  • Reply
    January 6, 2013 at 2:29 pm

    Here is a podcast that goes into great detail concerning the date of the Messiah’s birth and how it can be calculated to an approximate date, in the Fall of the year, by using the scriptural account of John the Baptist’s father and his course of service at the temple. John was born during Passover. It also has other interesting facts for your readers.

  • Reply
    Jose Luis
    January 6, 2013 at 1:16 pm

    Dear friends of the Appalachians
    Here in Argentina on January 6 is the day when all items are saved Christmas, the nativity scene with the child, San Jose and Maria, the cow, the colt, whose breath gave heat, and just three Magi, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.
    On January 6th is when children receive gifts in the shoes left at the door of his bedroom the night before, and they will see in their doorsteps how camels ate vegetables and carrots that left him to eat, and certainly look like turned to drinking water., from Buenos Aires, Argentina with all my love for children and surrounding Brasstown with the hope that the Three Wise Men have brought them many gifts, as he led the baby Jesus.
    José Luis.

  • Reply
    Mrs. Kent Lockman
    January 6, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    My late husband, Kent, loved the culture of the old Appalachia families years ago and started an Old Christmas for friends and neighbors over 20 years ago. We held it on the Saturday nearest to January 6, because most of us worked at that time. We wanted our guests to enjoy at least six to eight hours of celebrating.We began at 4pm with old timey snacks and drinks, and people wandered in for two hours. We left our Christmas tree up and the garland winding up the stair banister, but we added a little live cedar tree decorated with paper chain, popcorn and cranberry garland, floured gumballs from the sweet gum tree, tufts of soft lambs wool, and bits of colored wool tied on the branches. Everyone visited, some meeting for the first time because we tried to add new friends we felt would enjoy the old custom, and sometimes we dropped old friends who would rather watch college basketball in the other area of the house rather than play the old games later in the evening.
    Supper included our KY ham balls, cornbread casserole, persimmon pudding, and homemade bread, plus one old family recipe from each couple who attended. One year we had our first taste of hopping’  John , another year Burgos , last year venison and cooked turnips. Before we ate, we held hands  – all 30 or more of us – and we sang ” Love and joy come to you and to you a Merry Christmas too, and God send you a happy new year.”  Friends sat all over the house enjoying the wonderful supper and hoping to find the dime in the loaf of homemade bread because that meant good luck for the coming year.
    After supper, the men moved the round oak table out of the kitchen/ family room, put all the chairs in a huge circle, and we played old parlor games – Pleased or Displeased, Literary Salad, The Minister’s  Cat. Some years we went around the circle telling of a favorite Christmas memory, favorite gift, etc., and some years we acted out a melodrama with much laughter and very little quality acting. Last year Kent gave everyone strips of colored paper, passed out pocket knives to the men who didn’t have one (!), and taught everyone how to make paper chain without glue!
    The evening would usually end with an hour or more of string band music and folk ballads provided by our band  with fiddle, banjo, hammered dulcimer, guitar, and bass. Everyone participated in the songs and with kazoos, spoons, bones, and laughter.
    After one last glass of hot punch, Kent would hand out our handmade gifts to each couple. We enjoyed finding examples of wooden or felt, wool or tin  gifts we could make for our guests each year. Last year Kent added a buckeye for everyone so they could enjoy good luck during the year.By midnight or so, our guests would begin to depart, many saying it was the best Old Christmas ever. We held a total of 15  Old Christmas Gatherings over the years, and except for an upset country neighbor who didn’t appreciate the noise of our serenading with shotguns, bells, and banging pans at 10 pm, we all felt  like it was our true Christmas celebration. 2012 was our last and I am so happy Kent was able to enjoy it. After all, celebrating this Appalachian tradition  at a central Indiana farmhouse was all his idea!

  • Reply
    Elaine King
    January 6, 2013 at 12:11 pm

    Old Christmas is a folk tradition that hearkens back to the calendar change from Julian to Gregorian. When the calendar was changed to the current civil calendar, many people refused to change. It shifted the days by thirteen, so that, if you were still on the Old Calendar, December 25th fell on January 6th. Long ago everyone knew that it was still December 25th, that only the government had made the change. But slowly people forgot and thought that Old Christmas had always been on January 6th. The Russian Orthodox Church still keeps the Julian calendar and celebrates Christmas on the 25th of December, which falls on the 6th of January on the New Calendar. In fact, many Orthodox Christians, worldwide, are celebrating the Feast of the Nativity of Christ today.

  • Reply
    January 6, 2013 at 11:17 am

    I’ve never hear it called Old Christmas, but we’ve always celebrated Epiphany on January 6.

  • Reply
    January 6, 2013 at 11:02 am

    I always thought of it as the 12th day of Christmas. Haven’t heard the Old Christmas term before. Bet there will be some interesting comments!

  • Reply
    Granny Norma in WNC
    January 6, 2013 at 10:53 am

    YES! And thank you. I do believe John Parris’s grandfather was right about the changing of the days. My cousin’s family celebrates today (he was raised Methodist and lives in Louisiana.) Many years ago we lived for a year in San Francisco and discovered that the Russian Orthodox Christians held that Christmas was the 6th of January. I thought What a deal! You could shop the after Christmas sales for presents and save a bunch of money. Unfortunately, I couldn’t convince my oldest boy that it would be a good idea to open gifts on the 6th and being Baptist, I wasn’t about to convert to Eastern Orthodox. I was just joking anyways. Then, many years later, while taking gymnastics lessons in Greenville,SC (45 minutes down the mountain and an hour back twice a week for 5 years — groan!) my youngest daughter made friends with two sisters who were Greek. They also celebrated Christmas on the 6th. Being aware of the 12 days of Christmas, we usually keep decorations up till the 6th and many of my neighbors do too. Of course the kids thought it would be a good idea to get presents for all 12 days. “Sure, lets see, how about a Socko Paddle, a Yoyo, some bubble gum baseball cards, etc.” No, they thought that several hundred dollars worth of major toy purchases from the JC Penny Christmas catalog would be better. So that didn’t work out either. The great thing is, when we get to Heaven we can celebrate every day!

  • Reply
    Betty Cloer Wallace
    January 6, 2013 at 10:25 am

    Today is January 6, the last day of Old Christmas, whereupon I shall burn green boughs in my fireplace to ensure that the sun will return, and with the sun shall come the rebirth of spring to Green Bough Grange _____ (Macon County, NC)
    Best wishes to you and your, Tipper, for a wonderful new year!

  • Reply
    January 6, 2013 at 9:40 am

    I’ve never been around farm animals on Old Christmas, but I’ve always wanted to see the animals kneel. Even though my family did not celebrate Old Christmas, I keep it in my heart.

  • Reply
    Sallie aka granny Covolo
    January 6, 2013 at 9:36 am

    Tipper, I have that book “These Storied Mountains” My Dad was living in Waynesville at the time and he had Dorothy Parris (Who did wildflower illustrations in the book) autograph the book for me. I will want to read it again. I sought it out a few days ago and have it in my reread pile. John’s Parris forebears used to live across the road from my Keener relatives long ago..before John’s time even, Thanks for publishing this. Parris was a gifted chronicler of Appalachian stories.
    I need to get ahold of your book also. I love how you writers keep our past alive..Thanks again.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    January 6, 2013 at 9:35 am

    Christmas started “gettin old” for me back right after Halloween. But I love your little nativity scene. I would hate to think you could turn it up and find “made in China” on the bottom. If it is, don’t tell me! Ignorance is bliss!

  • Reply
    Bree Hatfield
    January 6, 2013 at 9:31 am

    Filipinos call this “Old Christmas” as “Feast of the Three Kings” which formally ends the Christmas season. We believed that the celebration commemorates the day when the 3 Kings visit Jesus to present their gifts. .

  • Reply
    Wanda in NoAla
    January 6, 2013 at 8:40 am

    My grandmother talked about this, but I don’t think anyone has mentioned it in our family since her passing. Thanks for sharing this. Have a great day!

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    January 6, 2013 at 8:39 am

    This is the day we took down Christmas, I never knew why, but it was bad luck to take it down before then.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    January 6, 2013 at 8:37 am

    Tipper–I never knew anyone who celebrated Old Christmas, but I remember Grandpa Joe (my paternal grandfather) talking about it. He also mentioned getting a Yule log.
    An interesting sidelight to the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar is that the transition caused riots in England when it occurred in the middle of the 18th century. Ignorant people were convinced that because of the change they had lost the better part of two weeks of their lives. The rallying cry of the riots (focused on London, if memory serves me rightly) was “give us back our days!”
    That’s the sort of pretty much useless trivia you learn when you teach British history, along with earthy things such as that the inventor of the flush toilet was Sir Thomas Crapper and that purportedly the origin of a widely used four- letter expletive came from spontaneous combustion of methane gas produced by shipments of guano placed in the lowermost reaches of a ship’s hold. The answer–store high in transit. I’ll let you figure it from there:)or else put me in the corner with a dunce cap on for being a naughty little acorn.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Tim Mc
    January 6, 2013 at 8:24 am

    I’ve never heard of Old Christmas, but I have read the reason we celebrate Christ birth, in December to appeal to the pagans and that’s where the decorating of the tree comes from. I read also where there are those who believe he was born in the spring or close to the summer months and their very convincing argument,,,,

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    January 6, 2013 at 8:14 am

    I’ve have heard of the Old Christmas celebration but only remotely. I find it interesting how traditions evolve. In this time of TV/money/advertising driving everything it can, all our old traditions/holidays have been turned into money making events with little respect for the origin.

  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    January 6, 2013 at 8:10 am

    Like John Parris, I heard my grandmother talk about “Old Christmas” and what to notice; but we never celebrated Christmas on Jan. 6, despite Grandma Sarah Evaline Souther Dyer’s stories about it. An interesting story which you can check out on internet is about the origin and reason for the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” In days of severe persecution of Christians, each of the twelve gifts represented a well-held doctrine of the catechism the children needed to know. You might like to check this out, if you haven’t read about it already. (Listening now to the girls play “Barendans”; love it!)

  • Reply
    January 6, 2013 at 8:08 am

    Old Christmas is Epiphany for the Greeks and marks the end of the twelve days of Christmas. We observe the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist.
    In coastal areas, after church, on the morning of January 6, the priest goes to the nearest port or marina. Having blessed the waters, he throws a large cross into the sea. Then, a group of young men brave the cold waters and dive into the sea trying to retrieve the cross. The one who gets it is the “winner” and is considered to be the lucky person of the year. You may think that Greece and Cyprus are warm countries but the sea can be really chilly even on a sunny day.
    After the diving, many fishermen bring their boats to the port to be blessed by the priest Theophania (Epiphany) is also called Fota meaning light and relating to the day being a Feast of Light since Jesus Christ for the Greek Orthodox is the only true light.

  • Reply
    Mary Shipman
    January 6, 2013 at 7:56 am

    I have heard the term ‘old Christmas’. Where I live, when I was a child, it was the day the families put away the Christmas decorations and usually burned the tree in a bon-fire.
    Those days are long past, and most of the practitioners are now gone.I’d like to know what the tradition was behind that practice.

  • Leave a Reply