When I was little at Mamaw and Papaw’s, I remember the Christmas decorations staying up until after the New Year. I never knew why – or thought to ask. Now that I’m older, I can’t help wondering if they left them up in honor of Old Christmas.
You’re familiar with Old Christmas, whether you realize it or not. We’ve all heard the Twelve Days of Christmas. Those days start on December 25 and run through January 6. Making today the “true” Yule, or the day the magi showed up to see the baby Christ.
How did we end up with two Christmases?
The tradition of Old Christmas can be traced back to the transition from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian. Mainland Europe implemented the change because the Julian calendar didn’t accurately reflect how long it takes the earth to circle the sun.
It took nearly 200 years for England and her colonies to follow in their footsteps. This change upset commoners in British territories who felt robbed of 12 days of the year. Discontented by the shift, some continued to celebrate the original holiday rather than the new.
Old Christmas in North Carolina
When the change finally made its way into the North Carolina colony, our ancestors saw the opportunity to embrace an extended holiday. Some communities celebrated the whole twelve days!
Lore surrounding the original holiday sprang up. Old folks in Appalachia say January 6 is a night of miracles. They claim the farm animals talk and kneel in honor of Christ at the stroke of midnight. Others say the elderberry bushes bloom, no matter how cold it is.
Over time these Old Christmas traditions died out. However, they survived in some areas of North Carolina and are still celebrated today. In the Outer Banks, they celebrate with oyster roasts. While in the mountains, there are “breaking up Christmas” parties with live music.
I didn’t grow up celebrating Old Christmas, so there are no oyster roasts or parties at our house. I do leave the decorations out until January 6, though – if for no other reason than it reminds me of Mamaw and Papaw.