228: Old Christmas

Many people don’t know this, but for many years Ozark and Appalachian hillfolk celebrated Christmas on January 6th, not December 25th. It’s said this was because the immigrants brought over the January 6th Christmas tradition from Europe with them, but sort of missed the memo for the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar that England and Scotland made in 1752.

Many hillfolk were abiding by the old calendar well into the 19th century and some even into the 20th. I’d say you wouldn’t find anyone in the Ozarks still celebrating Christmas on the 6th (outside of the Orthodox and Catholic churches that use the old calendar) but many people do celebrate “Old Christmas” on the 6th instead of the usual Epiphany day (as most Ozarkers are Protestants and don’t celebrate all of the feast days.)

Here are a few quotes about “Old Christmas” from Vance Randolph’s “Ozark Magic and Folklore”:

“A great many of the old-timers call December 25 ‘New Christmas’ in order to distinguish it from ‘Old Christmas,’ which falls on January 6. They tell me that in pioneer days nearly everybody celebrated Christmas twelve days later than they do now. Old folks say that elderberry always sprouts on the eve of Old Christmas even if the ground is frozen hard, you’ll find the little green shoots under the snow. A man at Pineville, Missouri, told me that bees in a hive always buzz very loudly exactly at midnight on the eve of Old Christmas; if several bee gums are set close together, the ‘Old Christmas hum’ can be heard some distance away. This shows that January 6, not December 25, is the real Christmas.”

“Mrs. Isabel Spradley, Van Buren, Arkansas, tells me that the old folks in her neighborhood sometimes call January 6 ‘Green Christmas’ or the ‘Twelfth Night.’ It is on January 5, the eve of Old Christmas that the cattle are supposed to kneel down and bellow, exactly at midnight, in honor of the birth of Jesus. Some say that the critters have the gift of speech on this night, so that they may pray aloud in English. Mrs. Spradley quotes an old woman with reference to the family water supply: ‘Our well had a charm put on it the night the cows talked, and I wouldn’t clean it out for silver!’ I don’t know what the charm is that this old woman referred to, but there are people in Arkansas today who say that the water in certain wells turns into wine at midnight on January 5.”

“It is said that on the morning of Old Christmas there are two daybreaks instead of one I have talked with men who claim to have seen this phenomenon. Boys born on Old Christmas are supposed to be very lucky in raising cattle; some say that these ‘Old Christmas children’ can actually talk the cow brute’s language.”

“There are old men in the Ozarks today who swear that they have actually seen cattle kneel down and bellow on Old Christmas eve. But skepticism sometimes prevails, even in the Ozarks. A neighbor tells me that when he was a boy he watched repeatedly to see his father’s oxen kneel but was always disappointed. His parents told him, however, that the presence of a human observer broke the spell, and that cattle must always salute the Savior in private. ‘But I just drawed a idy right thar,’ he added thoughtfully, ‘that they warn’t nothin’ to it, nohow.’”

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