Old Christmas

Today’s guest post was written by Jim Casada.

old-christmas-in-Appalachia

OLD CHRISTMAS written by Jim Casada

Like everyone I knew as a youngster growing up in the Smokies, my family celebrated Christmas on December 25, and I don’t recall any activities from my boyhood directly associated with what mountain folks have long styled “Old Christmas.” However, both my parents were keenly aware of the long established tradition of recognizing the date of January 6, which came 12 days after the date on which the holiday is now celebrated, as Christmas Day. They would talk about it around “New Christmas” and in all likelihood someone would mention, come January 6, that this was “Old Christmas” or the “real” Christmas.

The essence of the January 6 date links to a calendar change tracing back to the middle of the 18th century (1752 in England, although the change came much earlier, in the late 1500s, in continental Europe). The transition was from the Julian calendar, known as the Old Style one, to the Gregorian or New Style calendar. The rationale behind the change involved lost days, over time, thanks to the absence of a Leap Year as a part of the Julian calendar. That move from one calendar to another was a traumatic one, at least in the British Isles, with many common folks believing the government had deprived them of 12 days of their allotted life span (in other words, distrust of the government is nothing new). There were riots in London and elsewhere, with mobs in the streets screaming “we want our 12 days back,” as a result.

When settlers came to the New World they brought with them the tradition of Old Christmas, that of the Julian calendar, and it was celebrated in many areas of the Appalachians well into the 20th century. According to mountain legend, at midnight, with the arrival of Old Christmas, various miracles occurred. Among them were roosters beginning to crow at 12:00 and continuing to do so right on up until daybreak, cows and other livestock kneeling in homage to the Christ child’s birth in a manager, and flowers (especially elderberry bushes) suddenly bursting into bloom in the midst of winter. Those who celebrated Old Christmas held that it was the true and sacred date and that December 25 was a commercialized, secular version rather than the one associated with the birth of Jesus.

Old Christmas primarily involved prayer and the singing of carols as opposed to feasting, giving of gifts, and celebratory festivities. Even if there was dancing and merry-making, as midnight approached fiddles became silent, family and friends huddled close to the hearth while holding hands, and one or more of the elders present would offer prayers. There was little if any in the way of giving of gifts associated with Old Christmas. In his youth my father’s Christmas celebration was in some ways a combination of Old and New Christmas. His family recognized December 25 as Christmas Day, but partly because of poverty but also because of close association of the day with religious observances, gifts were minimal, with the children getting a stocking stuffed with some hard candy, nuts, maybe an apple or orange, and little more.

There were also some folkways associated with the time period. Perhaps the most common of these involved the “12 days of Christmas” (the time between December 25 and January 6) being known as Ruling Days. Traditional folklore held that various signs observed on each of the days, along with the weather each one brought, foretold what each of the 12 coming months held in terms of weather conditions. “Signs” such as cloud formations, wind patterns, heavy frosts (or lack of them), precipitation, and animal behavior were all observed carefully during the 12 days. Lest you dismiss such practices as sheer superstition, I would simply note that many old-timers of my youthful acquaintance were flat-out weather wizards when it came to predictions.

It was considered bad luck to carry out ashes during the 12 days, something which could have posed a problem in an era where the main source of heat in many a home was a fireplace or fireplaces. Cutting, splitting, and burning wood was an integral part of daily life, and over the course of almost two weeks, especially if it was cold, a goodly pile of ashes would have built up. Maybe turning them to soap, one common usage for wood ashes, would have been appropriate, but that was a chore almost always performed out-of-doors.

Old Christmas is now but a fading memory, but 150 years ago there were probably more folks in this part of the world who celebrated the birth of the Christ child on January 6 than on December 25. If nothing else, such traditions deserve to be remembered whether or not they are practiced.

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I had never even heard of Old Christmas until I started the Blind Pig and The Acorn. I hope you enjoyed Jim’s post as much as I did and if you have memories or knowledge of Old Christmas please leave a comment and share what you know.

Tipper

*Ruling day 12: Low 49 High 64 Rainy, Cloudy, Windy

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22 Comments

  • Reply
    Jane
    January 17, 2019 at 5:33 pm

    My great aunt who was born in 1915 would always call the younger members of the family and remind us of Old Christmas on Jan 6. She said to be sure we didn’t do any washing on that day as we would wash a soul away.

  • Reply
    Ann Applegarth
    January 5, 2019 at 6:30 pm

    Much of the Orthodox Church still celebrates Christmas on January 6. And some of the Greek Catholic Church congregations do, too. In Ukraine, they celebrate both days as Christmas.

  • Reply
    Leslie Haynie
    January 5, 2019 at 5:07 pm

    I take down the tree and decorations on old Christmas now, lots less stressful than trying to get it done before the new year. I’m thinking of baking a twelfth night cake next year too.

  • Reply
    Nancy Schmidt
    January 5, 2019 at 2:36 pm

    Jean Ritchie’s book “Singing Family of the Cumberland’s” has a nice chapter about how her family observed Christmas in their home near Viper, Kentucky in the early years of the 20th century. Jean Ritchie, as many know, was celebrated in the folk revival of the 50s with Pete Seeger, and other great singers of that important generation. Their memories and songs were basic to our trove of mountain lore and music.

  • Reply
    Jay A Clark
    January 5, 2019 at 12:51 pm

    When I was nine (Christmas 1961) my Aunt Emma gave me a couple of pocket
    knives that had belonged to her son Glenn (who died young at the Battle of the
    Bulge) and said, “These are for Old Christmas.” When Mom asked her what she
    meant, Aunt Emma reminded her that the Turner Family observed Old Christmas.
    She said it was a time apart from the usual Christmas festivities with their
    hustle and bustle and that it was a time for simple gifts and remembering. This
    jogged Mom’s memory and we renewed the celebration. Being a child, I liked the idea of an extra Christmas (more presents) and Mom and Dad and I began observing Old Christmas as well as the regular holiday.
    We made a point of giving simple gifts, frequently something handmade or some sort of antique, in keeping with the idea of a simpler sort of Christmas. This pretty much became a regular observance with us as long as Mom was alive. I have continued it with my own family in the years since. Back when we owned a couple of horses, my wife and I would visit them on Old Christmas eve, listening to see if they might speak, and just to enjoy the feeling of being in the barn on this special night.

  • Reply
    Allison B
    January 5, 2019 at 10:57 am

    Always enjoy the Old Christmas facts, stories, and memories that are posted here on the Blind Pig….

  • Reply
    Maxine Appleby
    January 5, 2019 at 10:57 am

    The feast of the three wise men- falls on Jan 6 and marks the story well. Jesus would have been near two years old, and Herod’s order to kill all male children two and younger was given as a result of those wise men seeking directions to find the Child. They left in a different direction than which they came in order to give the Holy Family time to get away from murderous Herod’s men. It all falls together when you put the dates of Old Christmas in your thinking. Old Christmas is still observed in my home, with the wonderous story of the Bible fully in mind. The « old ways » of Old Christmas are founded in the beliefs and teachings of the Bible that our ancestors brought with them to this brave new land. I am pleased that their customs and beliefs are being discussed here to remind us of those whose heritage we carry on. Thanks, everyone, for your stories of Old Christmas.

  • Reply
    Larry Proffitt
    January 5, 2019 at 9:57 am

    Thanks for another great post. I didnt know about Old Christmas. My wife tells me Old Christmas is celebrated here now at Sycamore Shoals state park where the Overmountain men crossed the Watauga and spent the night on their way to fight the British. Great read. Thanks.

  • Reply
    Jack
    January 5, 2019 at 9:56 am

    It is also interesting that the christian church refers to January 6 as the epiphany , the tradiditional date that the magi brought gifts to the christ child. It was celebrated before the christmas tradition was established, and is the oldest recognition of christ’s birth. It was started before the Gregorian calendar change. Don’t know what the connection to old christmas might be.

  • Reply
    Jeanie Crutchfield
    January 5, 2019 at 9:46 am

    I do remember my grandma telling of cows getting on knees at midnight and making a mooing noise on the old Christmas date. She told me a lot that I just let go by the way side thinking I’d remember it all. Wish I had not waited until my late 70’s to begin to write it down. Love reading all of the old ways.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    January 5, 2019 at 9:33 am

    There is an art to the burning of wood as a fuel. Twelve day without taking out the ashes doesn’t seem an inordinate amount of time to me. Ashes are created by the incomplete combustion of the wood being burned. The type of wood, how it is stored and how it is burned as much to do with the amount of ash and soot left over (and let’s not forget creosote in the chimney).
    Ashes are not trash to be discarded. We kept a big metal bucket behind the stove where they were collected. Being a great source of potash, wood ashes are great as a fertilizer and were saved mainly to be spread on the garden. They were also used on icy steps and walkways and to fill potholes in a graveled driveway.
    Not at home but, I was witness to the use of ashes in the home production of lye made from ashes. Aunt Pearl, an old woman who lived next door would put a cast iron pot of the wood heater and fill it with ashes. The pot had a drain and a pipe running to a jar on the floor near the heater. She would add water to the pot so that it would percolate through the ashes and collect lye. She would use the lye she had recovered in the making of hominy. She also used it in making lye soap but I don’t remember actually seeing it done seeing it done. I do remember the big cast iron pot she did it in.
    We used wood exclusively as a source of fuel when I was growing up. Daddy took us boys into the woods early on and taught us which trees were good for what purposes. That was part of our education as much as readin, writin and rithmatic. Now it’s called survival skills and mostly is taught by Youtube and the Discovery Channel.

  • Reply
    Michael M. Cass
    January 5, 2019 at 9:32 am

    Thanks to Jim Casada for writing this and to Tipper for publishing it here.

  • Reply
    Janice
    January 5, 2019 at 9:32 am

    I was aware of the 12 days of Christmas, but didn’t realize they were after Dec. 25 until I got married. My Mother-in-Law who was Irish Catholic called January 6 “the Feast of the 3 Kings” day. When she was growing up, her family put up and decorated the Christmas tree on December 24 and didn’t take it down until January 6.

  • Reply
    Shirl
    January 5, 2019 at 9:19 am

    Thanks for the very interesting post, Mr. Casada. Mom often spoke of Old Christmas happenings, especially the behavior of animals at midnight. She never celebrated during Old Christmas, she just shared tales passed down from her mom and granny. I didn’t pay much attention and certainly never ventured outside to prove her wrong, as I thought it was the scariest thing I ever heard.
    I have been keeping a journal and documenting the weather during Ruling Days. The weatherman said we hadn’t seen the sunshine since December 27th. It seems longer than that! Today looks to be sunny and warm before more rain moves in late Sunday. I sure hope 2019 is drier than 2018, our wettest year on record.

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    January 5, 2019 at 9:10 am

    I had heard of “Old Christmas” for many years but mainly in the context of the animals kneeling at midnight though I have never witnessed it possibly for the same reason that I’ve rarely welcomed in a New Year. I was usually working at midnight or in bed so I could get up early when I was working day shift.

  • Reply
    Pamela Danner
    January 5, 2019 at 9:04 am

    Very interesting post. I have never heard of Old Christmas.

  • Reply
    Rooney Floyd
    January 5, 2019 at 8:47 am

    I suppose this is the basis for the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”?

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    January 5, 2019 at 8:18 am

    I heard the words “old Christmas” growing up but had no idea what they meant. I never knew of anyone having any observances of January 6.

    The O S (old style) to N S (new style) change is a headache in genealogy. If one forgets the 12 day hickup, it confounds important dates. And American history is such that the backtrail goes right across that change.

    We finally have sun today. Having traveled over Christmas, I do not know how long it has been here since the last sunny day. But I know it has been awhile. Looks to me as if the ruling days so far show a warmer than normal and very wet spring.

    • Reply
      Edwin Ammons
      January 5, 2019 at 9:39 am

      It rained at least a little bit here every day since the Friday before Christmas. The sun popped out a time or two just to show us it was still there but then it went back to rainin. I ain’t never seen the beat in all my born days!

  • Reply
    Gayle Larson
    January 5, 2019 at 8:12 am

    I do believe I heard my Grandmother speak about old and new Christmas but I never paid any attention. I was too eager to see what Santa left me under the tree. How sad I was too young for it to matter to me.

  • Reply
    Don Byers
    January 5, 2019 at 7:43 am

    Interesting post!

  • Reply
    tmc
    January 5, 2019 at 6:45 am

    I can’t add anything to what Mr. Jim wrote, Heck never heard of it until I started reading the Pig.

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