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Telling a story with the GHL’s collections: Outer Banks Old Christmas — a January tradition that keeps on giving

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Telling a story with the GHL’s collections: Outer Banks Old Christmas — a January tradition that keeps on giving

Have you ever heard of the Hatteras Island tradition of Old Christmas? While many of us have already sent holiday decorations into hibernation and hauled dried out trees to the curb, Old Christmas is celebrated each year around January 5 or 6 at Hatteras Island’s Rodanthe, and it reportedly traces its roots back more than 260 years. Searching for something January-esque to blog in the New Year, I recently came across the NCpedia entry on the old tradition and wanted to learn more. There is in fact little to be found on its precise origins, so I decided to see what would happen if I had to construct a picture of the event entirely from the GHL’s collections, both traditional print and digital. Here goes!

Old Christmas Celebration with Drum, 1952, State Archives of NC, NC Digital Collections

Old Christmas Celebration with Drum, 1952, State Archives of NC, NC Digital Collections

I began with the GHL’s print collections and discovered a reference resource I had never heard of: The Dictionary of American Regional Englishand loved its handily ironic acronym – DARE — given the subject of the Outer Banks. And there under the entry for “Old Christmas” I discovered that the tradition is found elsewhere in the region, including the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina (whence I cheated and did a quick Google search to confirm). I found virtually no primary sources to point to the origin of the tradition. Instead, sparse references appear here and there in folklore compilations and the occasional cookbook. The most colorful references appear in Judge Charles Whedbee’s Outer Banks Mysteries & Seaside Stories with its chapter on the centerpiece of Rodanthe’s celebration – the monstrous rogue bovine Old Buck — and Elizabeth Wiegand’s The Outer Banks Cookbook, for its essay “Christmas on the Outer Banks” and guide to oyster roasts.

The fun comes from North Carolina Digital Collections: in digitized back issues of Our State magazine, a handful of images of Old Christmas in 1952 from the State Archives, and one personal letter written during the Civil War. And the serendipitous find of feature articles on Old Christmas from Our State coincides wonderfully with the recent addition of these North Carolina treasures to the library’s digital collections, in issues from 1933 to 2011. (That’s something else worth celebrating!)

But getting back to Old Christmas. The event traces its ancestry to the British Empire’s late switch to the Gregorian Calendar in 1752 under the reign of George II (it was decreed by Pope Gregory in 1582). The calendar change moved Christmas up 11 days, making Christmas under the old Julian Calendar January 6.  Sometime later, January 6 became Twelfth Night, coinciding with the Feast of the Epiphany. Folk and 20th century traditions tell that the Hatteras celebrations included oysters (roasts and shoots), minstrel shows, square dancing, singing, much merriment, the settling of old grudges, and the appearance of the ghost bull, Old Buck, said to hide in the wild woods of Hatteras the rest of the year.  Some have asserted Old Buck’s connection to old Cornish or Anglo-Saxon practices. Whedbee tells the tale of the melding of English and Spanish lore, with the arrival on Hatteras of a ghost-bull from a ship wreck. Although I could find no written evidence substantiating either, the appearance of the buck is also curiously like reports of English Twelfth Night wassail traditions with a man dressed as a bull accompanying revelers.

Whedbee also talks of the Christmas Drum, handed down through Rodanthe’s Payne family and reportedly dating back to the American Revolution. Archival photos from the Outerbanks History Center show Payne descendants playing the ancient drum in Old Christmas festivities.  State Archives photos of the 1952 celebration also show the old drum.  Enjoy the photos of a tamer version of Old Buck giving rides to children!

And happy Old Christmas!

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