Add this to the lengthy list of “reasons to love the Outer Banks”: residents celebrate not one, but two Christmases (and, no, it’s not Christmas in July). In January, when most Americans are taking their fir trees to the curb and boxing up decorations, many folks in North Carolina prepare for a second party called “Old Christmas.”
What Day Is It?
Old Christmas (also known as Twelfth Night) has a long and fascinating history. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII established the Gregorian calendar, which was ten days ahead of its predecessor, the Julian calendar. This change was slowly communicated across Europe. Not surprisingly, many people were ignorant of the change while others refused to recognize the new calendar, so it was common for people to disagree about what day it was. Often, resistance to the new calendar was inspired by religion. Roman Catholic nations transitioned to the new calendar the year it was announced, while many Protestant and Orthodox nations hesitated. This meant, for example, that England was ten days ahead of France and celebrated Christmas on different days.
Old Christmas Day
It wasn’t until 1752 that Great Britain and her colonies transitioned to the Gregorian calendar. And by this time, the gap between the calendars had increased to 11 days (because it takes the earth 365.2422 days to complete its orbit around the sun, which amounts to 11 minutes and 14 seconds added every year). To finally get the British people in sync with Europe, Parliament ordered that September 2, 1752 be followed by September 14, 1752. From the perspective of the Brits accustomed to the Julian calendar, this moved Christmas day from December 25th to January 5th. Thus, January 5th became known as “Old Christmas Day.” With subsequent shifts in our calendar, Old Christmas has been celebrated between the 5th and 7th of January.
So how does this relate to North Carolina? One story is that Great Britain didn’t clearly communicate the calendar shift to their colonies in the Americas, so folks in the Outer Banks continued to celebrate holidays according to the Julian calendar. Another story is that the colonists knew, but simply refused to comply. Eventually, however, the Gregorian calendar became standard in America and we synced back up with Europe. But the tradition of Old Christmas remains.
Oysters and Old Buck
So between the 5th and 7th of January, residents of the Outer Banks celebrate this strange bit of history with oyster roasts, caroling, and spending time with neighbors and family. A custom unique to the area is the appearance of “Old Buck,” a ghost bull who hides in the woods on Hatteras Island and only appears at Old Christmas. The appearance of Old Buck is rooted in customs of Medieval England, which included a performer who rode a hobbyhorse during Christmas celebrations. This creature, “powered” by two people camouflaged under cowhide and fabric, leaps and prances its way through the community delighting both the young and old.
So if you happen to visit the Outer Banks at the beginning of January, head over to Rodanthe on Hatteras Island, known as the best place to celebrate Old Christmas.
Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company