As many Southerners know, Christmas hasn’t always fallen on December 25
So this is Christmas. Gifts in pretty paper and the ringing of silver bells. Crooners singing carols. “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer”, claymation Santas and “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree”. TV and radio from the 30s to the 60s surely had a heavy impact on our culture. Still, tendrils of what Christmas was like in the days before Burl Ives or Bing Crosby remain today. I do like modern Christmas. My house is decorated in such a way that wise men could navigate by it at night. But I’ve always been attracted to the older, melancholy ideas of Christmas. Some Christmas traditions in America hearken back to when not everything was set in stone, like calendars.
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What is Old Christmas?
I’m glad you asked. Allow me to play the role of Ghost of Christmas Past. I’ll clasp my robe and go back to a time before the firmaments of Christmas had congealed into what is largely accepted today. As early as the fourth century, there was a liturgical calendar divide amongst the hemispheres of the Roman Empire. Eastward, Christmas came on January 6th. In the West? December 25th. The Christian world lived with this mighty divide for a thousand years or so.
Pope Gregory XIII introduced the new Gregorian calendar in 1582 as a correction to the flawed Julian calendar. The Julian calendar was created by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. With apologies to our friends in the various Orthodox churches who still keep it, the Julian calendar was not great. The Julian calendar doesn’t line up well with the solar year, causing months to drift over time. If left without correction, the Julian calendar would have eventually had July arriving in the middle of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. December would be the start of summer. To fix the drift, 10 leap days were inserted into the calendar. This set the months back in their rightful place and preserved the traditional alignment of months to seasons. Therefore, when you went to bed on Oct. 4, you woke up on Oct. 15, Rip Van Winkle style.
Why Appalachian settlers didn’t like the change
Do you think Daylight Savings Time is messy? Try losing the better part of a fortnight. As you might expect, the predominantly Roman Catholic countries immediately adopted the pope’s new calendar. But it took predominantly Protestant countries somewhat longer. Great Britain and its American colonies did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1752. If you remember how the metric system rollout went, what happened next won’t be much of a surprise.
Many of the residents of the British Isles, including the English and Scottish (the chief settlers in the Appalachian Mountains), did not embrace the change. They celebrated Christmas, known as Old Christmas or Little Christmas – on January 5. Another leap day adjustment in the Julian calendar in 1800 moved Old Christmas 12 days after December 25. This placed Old Christmas, or Epiphany, on January 6. And it also celebrates the arrival of the Wise Men at the manger to see baby Jesus. It won’t surprise you to find that Appalachian settlers were among the last to convert to the new calendar. And many, like children of divorce everywhere, chose to celebrate both for a time.
Who celebrates Old Christmas today?
If you want to celebrate Old Christmas, the holiday has moved again due to the continuing issues with the old Julian calendar adding a day over the decades. Currently, Old Christmas would fall on January 7. However, the thirteen days of Christmas doesn’t sound as good as the twelve days of Christmas. However, in keeping with my prior note about Appalachians rebuking change, many still consider January 6 to be the true “Old Christmas”.
And while few still celebrate the holiday today, minus perhaps the Amish and select folk in West Virginia, there are still many Southerners still today who acknowledge the day in their own ways as a nod to their roots. For instance, it isn’t at all unusual for Southern households to leave their trees up until January 6 or 7 – a tradition I can get behind. After all, who doesn’t love a few extra days of Christmas?
Do you celebrate Old Christmas? Or know someone who does? Let us know in the comments! View the web story version of this article here.