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New (Old) Christmas


I've written about Old Christmas before, many times. The story bears repeating, though it is more complex than a brief synopsis can provide. I would urge you, dear reader, to refer to my earlier work, www.joesledge.com/post/old-christmas, here, for a fairly full description. But I will do my best to retell it in an entertaining fashion.



Long ago, with less accurate calendars, the days of the year were not entirely keeping up with the seasons and the Earth's trip around the sun. So a new calendar that was more accurate was ordered by Pope Gregory XIII, but was not entirely accepted by other nations. Also, it took a while for the news to travel from Rome in 1582 to Rodanthe, NC in 1752. By that time, most nations had accepted it, but the date of January 6 for Christmas had changed to December 25. The locals were just isolated enough, and just hard headed enough, to want to keep the old date. So, with families still coming home and traditions long engrained, Old Christmas, on the first Saturday nearest Epiphany was born. Now, many places and people celebrate Old Christmas in some way. Several religions value Epiphany, and often that is the reason we usually wait until the first week of the New Year to take down decorations. But Rodanthe, and to a certain extent, Avon (Kinnakeet to the locals) really have done their own thing. Rodanthe has become famous for their celebrations, and the way they celebrate has evolved, sometimes devolved, over the many years. Old Christmas today is very much a family and friends affair, a simple but joyous celebration to invite folks back to the island. Even those long left from the village will come back, and they are usually welcomed. It doesn't matter what the last name is now, as long as someone can figure out who they were related to, well, that's good enough. It is a very specific version of the distant cousin rule we seem to all share. We're all related somehow. We're all family.


Traditions include chicken & dumplings for the Christmas meal, along with steamed oysters. The food choice was always what was plentiful, though "easy" may not be the good choice for a description. Cold weather and winter ocean winds can only be held back by hot fires and steaming pots for so long, and making dumplings may be cheap and plentiful, along with "borrowing" a chicken or two, but there was always a labor involved in preparing the food. Hot dogs would be easier, but they aren't tradition.

The more famous traditions involve parades and singing. An old drum, legend says it washed up from a shipwreck attached to a sailor using it as a life buoy, is played along with a fife and harmonica. The drum after 200 years has finally been replaced, but the tradition continues. And even more famous is Old Buck, a mad bull that washed ashore from a shipwreck and found the many cows and plentiful sweetgrass preferable to drowning. He came to the shore where he roamed wild and free. Some say he was shot and killed by an out of state hunter, while others think he wandered into the woods and lives on still, a mad beast that appears once a year to sort out the good kids from the bad. He shows up as a cow skull draped in a hide, chasing the kids around the community hall, until he finally is scared back into the woods for another year. Curiously, while the stories around Rodanthe have been well documented over time, I found a different version when I was able to republish Kinnakeet Adventure by Stanley Green. He does a great job of going into detail the celebrations that the kids did in Avon at the time in the 1930s. They would rise up early, real early, well before the late winter sunrise over the Atlantic, sometimes as early as 3:00 am, to parade with lanterns to light the way, and pots and pans to bang on. They would begin in early December, and do this for three weeks. Afterwards, the students prepared for a Christmas pageant. It was all student led, with the general initiative and pride done by high schoolers, usually with only guidance and permission by the teachers.

Now, that was the 1930s. By the 1970s, Old Christmas had turned into something closer to Festivus, especially the part of the airing of the grievances, and maybe the feats of strength. After the kids and families left, the men stayed, and lets just say they had their own version of wassail, emphasis on the "ale". Arguments, fights, a bit of bloodshed and a few lost teeth were the usual result of a late night of Old Christmas celebration. The local deputies had their hands full, as the participants may have had it out for each other, they were united in not getting caught by the law. One story I heard told of the first late night reveler to leave, staggering to his car, but unable to find it. Everyone teased him as they all left for home, until there was only one vehicle, his, left. As soon as he got in, the deputy stopped him before driving away drunk, only to find a stone sober man, who was the designated decoy. Happily, the times have changed, and Old Christmas has taken on some new and more family friendly traditions, as more and more people come from off the island to come back for the celebration. Now it is meant for kids, grandparents, the whole gang. There's still drumming, oyster roasts, and oyster shoots, chicken & dumplings, and an appearance by Old Buck, but bloodshed is now kept to a minimum. I mention all this because I like the history of Old Christmas, but I like the idea of it even more. The past, present, and future, as Dickens once scribed, exists in the stories, and in the actions. I try to take the Old Christmas idea to heart. While Christmas has become a mishmash of sublime and sometimes ridiculous, with all the presents and too much food, and the required appearances in so many parties, Old Christmas is a good excuse to have none of that, while embracing the good parts. In Rodanthe, it's somewhat secular, a community event, but I also use it as a more respectful time to remember the meanings that we often forget for the season. I like how students, kids, but the future adults of the island, took the lead and did the work, and were proud of their accomplishments. We sometimes go too far, saying things we don't mean, or just shouldn't say, but with Old Christmas, the next morning, with a bag of ice on our head, all is forgiven. And we still welcome all, everyone is family, we're all related, we're all welcome.

And, on a personal, and somewhat greedy and irresponsible note, it's a good excuse for one more present. Did you get something from someone and didn't give them something back? Did you forget, or something got lost in the mail? Well, go ahead, get a gift, maybe a book? hint, hint, and give it to them. Especially if they love the Outer Banks. Then explain, "Well, I celebrate Old Christmas, see, so...." and that's a great excuse for being a week late.

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