By Stephen Smoot
On December 25, Christians the world over gather to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Kids from one to 92 congregate with family, friends, and the faithful for feasting and fellowship. On the night before, children all over follow the time honored ritual of leaving milk and cookies for Santa Claus as he winds his way through the night.
Much of the modern, especially the commercial, world incorporates Christmas with the more Saturnalia-ish New Years Eve, but few consider that “the twelve days of Christmas” extends six days into the new year.
Christians across the world recognize yet another day as vital in the celebration of Christ’s birth, January 6. Most churches refer to the date as Epiphany.
The reason for the dual dates goes back decades before the birth of Christ. Under Julius Caesar, the Romans switched their calendar from the unwieldy one that had served them for centuries. Caesar decided to instead use the Egyptian based solar calendar.
While ingenious in itself the solar, or Julian, calendar contained a bug in the system. The Julian calendar undercalculated the year by 11 minutes, rendering it increasingly inaccurate over time. By the year 1500, the calendar was out of sync by 10 days.
Pope Gregory XIII commissioned Church astronomers to rectify the error and the new calendar entered official Holy See use in the 1580s. While the Roman Catholic world embraced the change, centers of European opposition to the Pope held out longer. The British Empire and its Church of England adopted the Gregorian calendar, as it is known, in 1752. Russia and many Eastern Orthodox adherents did not embrace the change until the fall of the Romanovs in 1917.
The change moved the date that was December 25 to January 6.
Benjamin Franklin, writing as Richard Saunders in Poor Richard’s Almanack and who was, ironically, born on January 6, explained during discussion of the change that “yet is the Gregorian year, far from being perfect, for we have shewn that, in four Centuries, the Julian Year gains three Days, one Hour, twenty Minutes: But it is only the three Days are kept out in the Gregorian Year, so there is still an Excess of one Hour, twenty Minutes, in four Centuries, which in 72 Centuries will amount to a whole Day.”
American colonists and their settlements trickled west into the ridges, valleys, hills, and creeks of the Appalachian Mountains and Plateau. Settlers and traders, such as John Simpson who settled near what is now Clarksburg in the 1760s, lived far from established settlements on and near the coast. Many had never heard of colonial publications like Poor Richard’s Almanack, nor did they care to follow Acts of Parliament, so long as it fulfilled its duty to protect them.
Over time many, especially those in towns or along trade routes, reconciled themselves to the new calendar. Many that did, however, continued to celebrate Christmas on the same day they always had. In Appalachia, the tradition continued as “Old Christmas,” “Little Christmas,” or even “Green Christmas.”
Even as late as the 1930s, these traditions maintained their strong hold on back country celebrants. David Hackett Fischer in his work Albion’s Seed, shared that some North Carolina communities regarded December 25 as a “man made” Christmas holiday.
As the Appalachians saw more settlers from the Scottish lowlands and north English border country, they brought their traditions along. Celebrations of Old Christmas by these colonists reflected a more rough and tumble way of life. Conduct resembled better the Roman Saturnalia than a Christian religious holiday.
Fischer wrote “there was a feast even in the poorest houses and bonfires at night with much gunplay and fireworks.” The truly unfortunate had to endure a ritual called “stanging” which was a “sometimes violent ceremony in which a victim was hoisted on a long pole and forced to dangle until he bought himself free.”
In modern times, those who celebrate Old Christmas have left behind dangling people from poles. Since the 1800s, the tradition has evolved into a more thoughtful and contemplative holiday. Fruits and nuts found their way into the stockings of children. Families gathered to eat and give hand made gifts or articles of warm clothing.
The day developed its own mythology, including beliefs that elder bushes sprouted on Old Christmas, but did not grow again until spring. Many also believed that animals prayed to the Holy Spirit on this day and that loaning anything out on Jan 6 is bad luck.
Celebrants also marked the day with serenading and caroling. The Amish, who also celebrate the holiday, fast until noon, but eat a large meal afterwards. They do not work or conduct business on this day.
Many in Spanish cultures see January 6 as a day equal in importance to Christmas, but call it Three Kings Day. Traditionally, gift giving takes place on this day in emulation of the Magi described in the Bible as bringing presents to the Christ child. Each gift brought by the Magi represents part of the divine nature of Jesus.
Children await the coming of the Magi anxiously, just as they did Santa Claus 12 days prior. Tradition calls for them to leave shoes by the door. Grass is set out to refresh the Magi’s camels. Roman Catholics worldwide celebrate the day with a Kings’ Cake, which usually features a figurine or a lone nut to grace the top.
Many Spanish speaking countries have parades and other events to mark it, but most consider it a family centered holiday symbolic of the original Holy Family of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.
(Parts of this article were adapted from a similar piece written in the Pendleton Times by the same author in Dec 2022.)