Old Christmas in Appalachia, why they celebrated Jan 6

old christmas barn in snow

An Old Christmas tradition includes going into the barn at midnight on Christmas Eve to "watch the animals pray" (photo by Janice/stock.adobe.com)

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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”. 

The modern roots of holiday celebrations and decoration are heavily linked to the creation and distribution of mass media.

TV and radio from the 30s to the 60s had a heavy impact on our culture. It was all but preordained that the older various traditions would be drowned out and pushed aside. 

Still, tendrils of what Christmas was like in the days before Burl Ives or Bing Crosby remain today.

They stretch back to before Dickens’s Christmas, a dark, cold winter that brought promises of redemption and threats of damnation.

I like modern Christmas. I do. 

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. Those that somehow survived the peppermint neon glow of modern celebrations. 

Some Christmas traditions in America hearken back to a time when not everything was set in stone.

I like the idea of Old Christmas.

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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.

Read Also: When should you take your Christmas tree down, according to tradition

pine tree with mountains in background
If you think Daylight Savings Time is rough, try losing the better part of a fortnight (photo by Angelica/stock.adobe.com)

A calendar that used 10 leap days

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 B.C.

With apologies to our friends in the various Orthodox churches who still keep it, the Julian calendar was not great. Caesar was a whiz with salad dressings but really was overmatched when it came to celestial matters. 

The Julian calendar doesn’t line up well with the solar year, causing months to drift over time. The Julian calendar, if left without correction, 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. 

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. 

barn in winter time with christmas wreath
If you want to celebrate like it’s Old Christmas, head to the barn at midnight on Christmas Eve (photo by steverts/stock.adobe.com)

Why is Jan 6th called Old Christmas day?

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. 

What are some Appalachian traditions?

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.

A mountain tradition of old Christmas Eve was going to the barn at midnight to watch the animals pray.

Of course, the Appalachians also had a few superstitions about Christmas.

One superstition is that a cricket on the hearth is good luck. Some believed that placing a mistletoe under your pillow on Old Christmas would bring dreams of your true love.

Some also believed that a black cat meowing on Christmas was bad luck. Finally, fireworks were supposed to ward off evil spirits.

Do you know of any Appalachian superstitions or traditions? Let us know in the comments!

View the web story version of this article here.

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1 thought on “Old Christmas in Appalachia, why they celebrated Jan 6”

  1. My mother-in-law’s mother, who grew up around Jackson KY and died around 1960, reportedly observed “Old Christmas.” I has always assumed it was simply Epiphany and that the family had originally been Irish Roman Catholic. This article explains it better. They were probably Scots-Irish Protestants that had settled in Appalachia in the early 19th C.

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