Tuesday, December 15, 2009



The customs and traditions attending the observance of January 6 as the “true date of Christmas” is one of the most persistent in a large collection of fading rituals. Even at this late date, there continues to be observances of the “twelve days of Christmas” – not only in Appalachia, but in isolated communities in Texas and remote villages in England. The origin of this ritual is fascinating and goes something like this.

The first calendars developed in the western hemisphere were lunar. However, the moon proved to be notoriously inaccurate. Consequently, Julius Caesar instituted a calendar year that was based on 365 (and a quarter) days and was “sun-centered.” Although the Julian calendar was a vast improvement, it over-estimated the length of a year by eleven minutes and fifteen seconds. This added up to an entire day every one hundred and twenty-eight years.

By the time the 16th century rolled around, the calendar was over ten days over the actual year. In 1582, Pope Gregory decided to correct the situation by simply cutting off (deleting) ten days. Suddenly, the world had two calendars. England continued to honor the Julian calendar while Paris adapted the Gregorian. For over a century, England was eleven days ahead of Paris. This situation became increasingly troublesome, so in 1751 England passed the Calendar Act. In order to bring England into line with the rest of the western world, the English citizens were told that On September 2ed, 1752, the next day would be September 14th.

Many people were not able to understand this change. There was an outrage over the fact that the government had stolen “eleven days (and a fraction) of their lives.” In some parts of England, there were riots and marches in which people demanded that their eleven days be returned. Many refused to make the change and this is why January 6 is called Old Christmas Day.

Old Christmas Day was a time filled with magic and premonitions. There are still families in western North Carolina (and many more down on the coast) who observe the old ways: Never loan anything on Old Christmas day because you will never get it back. Bread baked on this day had curative powers, as does water which had been poured over objects made of pure silver. Wreaths of holly and doorways adorned with mistletoe conveyed an atmosphere of peace and good will.

Were our forefathers that stubborn or did many of them live in remote areas where they never got the word? At the time that the Calendar Act became law, it was also a time when Protestants did not take kindly to edicts that had originated from a Catholic Pope.

As for me, I sort of like the idea that maybe “somebody” stole eleven days out of our lives and maybe everything has been out of whack since the theft. Maybe there will come a magic night when our stolen hours will return, and all of the clocks in the world will run backward (like Benjamin Button’s), and the world’s cogs and wheels will realign themselves. Yeah, I know that is pretty silly, but I’m just trying to find something positive about this “misalignment.” Selah.


  1. Fetching story, but England ahead of Paris by 11 days had to be confusing. Maybe wars were fought somewhere over those missing days? Keep the stories coming. I'm learning things I didn't know.

  2. They celebrate Old Christmas at Hatteras and while I would read the newspaper accounts every year when I lived out east, I never knew the reason why. Thanks for another great story.

  3. I've never known of any Old Christmas celebration in my neck of the woods -- but Lee Smith describes one beautifully in FAIR AND TENDER LADIES.

  4. The closest that I have come to an Old Christmas was when I was teaching at Lees-McRae in the '70's and a local historian in Avery County recounted Old Christmas traditions in the local paper.