December 25th is known as Christmas day to Christians worldwide. Yet in the Appalachian mountains an older tradition persisted until very recently: the celebration of Old Christmas. The Julian Calendar is to blame, which was developed some 2,000 years ago. Pope Gregory XIII changed the calendar to match the solar cycle more closely in 1582, and so the year went from 376 to 365 days. Thus the Gregorian calendar was born.
Such a large change took a long time to reach all areas of Europe, and longer still to be embraced. Even 200 years later as Scottish and English people migrated to the Americas, they brought with them those extra 11 days, and the old calendar. January 6th is still celebrated today in the Catholic church as Epiphany, or the day in which the wise men brought their sacred gifts to the baby Jesus, but in the Mountains it is known as Old Christmas.
There are many supernatural and magical beliefs that circulate on this holy night. One tradition holds that one ought to not lend anything out on that day, as the lender will never have it returned. This plays on many other Appalachian folk beliefs, especially about Witches and their penchant to borrow things from you in order to conjure you.
Many fired guns and lit firecrackers at midnight on Old Christmas Eve. A practice related to the longstanding mumming traditions of England and the masking and costumery of much of the rest of Old Europe survived in the mountains as families would dress up in costumes and drive away the spirits of the Winter by banging pots, noisemaking and shouting. Some believe this noisemarking to particularly come from French and Spanish influences, though we see noise processions throughout Europe in winter such as in the case of the Perchenlauf in Austria.
It was also said that animals would speak, kneel or lie down at Midnight on Old Christmas Eve and that fruit trees would bloom for a moment. But curse the man who hides in the barn and tries to listen in on the animal’s divinatory speech, for he may hear of his inevitable death which creeps around the cold corner of a Winter’s night. Elder bushes would also grow from frozen early! It was also believed that to have good luck you should not carry your ashes out of the house from New Christmas, December 25th to Old Christmas January 6th. Huge bonfires on hill tops and the merriment and noisemaking, alongside unnerving costumery and guising, or going from farm to farm dressed up, much like at All Hallows, gives Old Christmas a delightfully spooky countenance during this liminal time. See this piece I wrote a few year ago to see more about guising in Appalachia.
It was not until the 1930’s that Christmas trees were popular in the mountains, instead a stocking of treats or small sweets adorned the Christmas mantle. Dancing, music and feasting of course featured in the 12 days leading up to Old Christmas, while prayer and time with family and church were also prioritized. Interestingly, the South served to preserve some of the old Christmas lore of Europe due to the time of colonization. In Virginia, the old carols and songs the English Puritans tried to stamp out as heathen in 1652 lived on amongst the colonies. There are even records of a Maypole being set up in Jamestown (1).
Wassailing and wassail songs were noted by song collector Cecil Sharp that had jumped the pond from England, “Wassail, wassail all other the town...” These revealing songs had been sung in England since Anglo Saxon times and lived on in the green hills of Appalachia. The “Cherry Tree Carol” was also very popular in Appalachia and preserved a mystical aspect of the mythic accomplishments of the unborn Christ Child (2).
With all this talk of magical trees blooming on Old Christmas Eve, Old Christmas also had specific plants that were gathered on this day. As mentioned before, the Elderberry was one. Pokeweed, Hops and Cherry tree foliage were also gathered to decorate the home or display. Some believed the pokeweed and the hop would sprout on Old Christmas just to return beneath the soil the next day. This was further proof that this was indeed the true Christmas day and not the “man made” Christmas on the 25th amongst believers.
Weather predictions could also be made during the 12 days between New and Old Christmas. One day for each month. Thus the 25th would predict January weather, the 26th February and so on, or the predictions would begin on the 6th and continue until the 12th in the same way. This practice was recorded in the 16th century in Germany. More predictions could be made as well by smoke. If the smoke from the chimney blew northward it meant the fruit crops would be poor, if south then fruit would be abundant! Some
Blessed Solstice and may some Midwinter merriments find you however you mark this return of the Light.
(1). Troubetzkoy, Ulrich. “How Virginia Saved the Outlawed English Carols.” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, vol. 30, no. 3, Historical Society of the Episcopal Church, 1961, pp. 198–202, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42972930.
(2). Young, Chester Raymond, and Louie Brown. “The Observance of Old Christmas in Southern Appalachia.” An Appalachian Symposium: Essays Written in Honor of Cratis D. Williams, edited by J. W. Williamson, Appalachian State University, 1977, pp. 147–58
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