Great Britain — and its American colonies — legally adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. People went to bed on Wednesday, September 2 — and woke up on Thursday, September 14.
A lot of folks were alarmed; they felt as if twelve days of their lives had been stolen from them, and worried that the new great sacred holiday dates — Easter, Christmas, etc., — were invalid under the new system.
So they decided not only to celebrate “new” Christmas, but to count an extra 11-12 days and celebrate “Old” Christmas as well.
In liturgical churches, such as Roman Catholicism and the Anglican-based denominations, the Christmas season is twelve days long (yes, “the twelve days of Christmas”) and ends on January 6, the visit of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus. Old Christmas did not originate from Epiphany. However, the two dates coincidentally, and pleasingly, line up because Epiphany is always twelve days from December 25, and because the British switchover from Julian to Gregorian dating sliced twelve days out of the calendar.***
I grew up hearing about “Old Christmas.” This was in the late ’60s, and my grandparents reminisced about their grandparents, so the timing goes back to the middle of the 19th century. They said the old folks believed it was the “true” Christmas and felt it was more sacred than the Santa Claus Christmas of December 25. As evidence of its sacredness, they said that at midnight on Old Christmas Eve, the animals knelt to the east, and sometimes spoke, a miracle due to the birth of Christ.
My grandparents talked a lot about the Outer Banks town of Rodanthe. “Down East” they celebrated Old Christmas with a community oyster roast, music and partying, and the appearance of “Old Buck,” a mythical figure who burst out of the woods and gave everyone a good, fun fright; carried the pretty young women on his back; and livened up the party. Two men under costume blankets and a mock bull’s head played “Old Buck.”
Of course, this is a hobby horse figure and a “Lord of Misrule” straight out of the Old Country, where Old Christmas was also still celebrated. One tantalizing bit of folklore claims that the early name for Old Buck was “Bucca,” a name found in Cornish folk practices (and witchcraft). I’m still tracking that down.
In my combing through folklore journals and old articles, I find tidbits suggesting that such “Lord of Misrule” hobby horse figures once made their appearances in other eastern NC areas: Hertford, Bertie, and Martin Counties, at least. Those seem to have been lost a long time ago, except for the celebration on Rodanthe.
The Cuveen of the Black Goat and its affiliated cuveens celebrate our Midwinter Sabbat on Old Christmas. This continues our goal of embedding eastern NC folklore and ancestral practices firmly within our praxis. Old Buck is present, and we also work in vision with many Ancestors and the Deities we honor. It’s become a “family reunion” celebration.
If you want to recognize Old Christmas, one tradition on both sides of the sea was (and is) to wassail the fruit bearing trees. I wassail all the trees on my land, because they’re all providing food for some being or another.
If you have not already done so, take some mead or warm juice around to your favorite tree or shrub and give it an offering, with blessings for health and fertility in the year to come.
***Devising an accurate solar calendar has plagued humans for millennia. Julius Caesar enacted a calendar that was 365 and 1/4 days long, with a leap year every fourth year. This calendar was used for over 1600 years in Europe. However, that calendar is little bit too long; by the time of the 16th century, the *date* of the Spring Equinox, March 21, was about ten days out of sync with the actual astronomical occurrence of the spring equinox.
Pope Gregory XIII tweaked the calculation to be more accurate *and* synced up the dates with what was actually happening Solstice and Equinox-wise. However, to do this, he had to chunk ten days off the calender. Most Western nations adopted this calendar, but Great Britain held out for another 150ish years. Many Orthodox denominations continue to use Julian dates for Christmas, Easter, and major church feasts.