Old Christmas


Willfulness and stubbornness are considered virtues by some, particularly the longtime residents of the Outer Banks. When presented with changing times, the locals are inclined to disagree and move on, or not, as the case may be. Which is why Rodanthe still has two Christmases.

For about 15 centuries, the nations of Europe still clung to a fairly accurate but flawed calendar created during Julius Caesar's reign over his known world. The Julian calendar worked, but was off by about 11 minutes a year, with many strange leap years thrown in to try to catch up with the changing sun. By 1582, Pope Gregory XIII endorsed a new calendar by Italian scientist Aloysus Lilius, which we use still to this day. Many countries refused to embrace the papal order, so the calendar wasn't fully accepted until 1752.

Except that no one told the residents of Rodanthe. Isolated and reticent of change even then, they clung to the notions of the past. When the calendar finally moved its way in, Christmas had been moved from January 6 back to December 25. Rodanthe decided to have two Christmases.

"Old Christmas" is celebrated on what is now known as Epiphany, but the locals, seeing it as a social event, with families coming home at the time, decided to make it the first Saturday after Epiphany so they could gather on a weekend.

And boy did they! The celebrations have evolved, more than changed, over the centuries, with some additions, and a few replacements. Rodanthe and Kinnakeet, known to the outside world as Avon on maps, both had traditions of young people gathering to parade with noisemakers, kazoos, fifes or flutes, as they marched from house to house. In his book Kinnakeet Adventure, Stanley Green tells of how his students would arise at three o'clock in the morning for three weeks before Christmas to bang pots and make noise throughout the village. They even insisted on starting school early to perform pageants and sing, as they were already up. The students carried lanterns with them to light the way during the late December mornings.

Rodanthe, with its January Christmas, had a similar event which used a drum that had washed up from a shipwreck. A large marching drum, along with a fife, and sometimes a harmonica, would be played early in the morning as people marched from house to house, beginning the days' festivities. The drum, after about 200 years of use, is now preserved at the Chicamacomico museum.

Embracing other winter events, the locals would have an oyster shoot, similar to inland turkey shoots. Participants buy a shotgun shell to shoot at a target, using different gauges for different levels, with the winner getting a bushel of oysters. The shoot held little competitive value, as it had always been difficult to determine the winner, but the participation, along with the requisite noise, was the more desired outcome. There may be some association with shooting in the New Year, performed in other areas of North Carolina. One of the reasons the prize was less important was that the gathering of Old Christmas always included food for the village. Oysters would be steamed outside, the big pots providing a modicum of heat on a cold January day. Another tradition was serving Chicken and Dumplings. This was usually done in advance by women. The recipes may have been slightly different, but the idea was the same. In early days, it often involved local kids gathering or stealing a chicken from different homes, and the dough dumplings were an easy addition to stretch a meal. Chicken and Dumplings wasn't specific to the Outer Banks, however. Nor was it considered a poor person's food. The meal was provided on many menus, alongside more complex meats and entrees. It is likely that the food was simply a tasty and popular meal on the cold Winter days.


One of the most famous, as well as mysterious and infamous, traditions would occur soon after dinner was over. Old Buck would appear at the door to the hall where everyone would gather. No one knew exactly when Old Buck would appear, but they knew there was trouble when he finally showed up. Old Buck was a legend tied in legend, so old no one is entirely sure where he came from. Local legend says he was a wild mad bull that swam ashore from a shipwreck and took a liking to the sweet salt grass and docile cows. A large bull with wild sharp horns, he was seen as a threatening demon to locals. He may have ultimately been killed by a local hunter, or legend also says he disappeared into the depths of nearby Trent Woods, where he lives to this day, only coming out once a year. What is sure is that a strange bull-like creature, an evil cow skull and hide, appears during Old Christmas. He has served many duties and chores over the years. Old Buck has been known to let little kids ride him, only bucking off the naughty ones. Other times he chases and is chased, getting beaten by paper tubes rolled up to send the demon bull back to where he came. He was also used to clear the center of the gathering hall of chairs and tables, as the band music always started up about the time Old Buck showed up.

Buck may have ties to an even deeper legend of Old Hob, a wild skeleton horse, from england, or even Mari Lywd, a horse skull on a barrow or hobbyhorse that would travel from house to house, singing a carol for a drink. If the house owners can't sing back, the horse and its many helpers come in and drink all the alcohol in the house.

So, that's the beginnings of the Old Christmas tales, but it's not the end. The beginning of the nd always starts with someone drinking, doesn't it? Well, come back soon and I'll tell you those stories, too!



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