Today is Epiphany in most parts of the Western Christian world, and is Christmas Day in much of the Eastern Orthodox world, following the Julian calendar (at least, as it was in the 18th century). There is a splendid coincidence in that the move from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar by Great Britain and its colonial holdings in 1752 stripped the year of 11 days, making January 6th in the New Style, correspond to December 25th in the Old Style, making the 12 days of Christmas act as the perfect gap between “New Christmas” and “Old Christmas.” There is an (undocumented) belief, as in the text below, that some isolated British colonists in North America did not get the news of the switch in calendars for some time, and, thus, continued to celebrate Christmas on the Julian date, and then, when they got the news, continued to celebrate Old and New Christmas. Whether this is true or not, there is a continuing tradition of celebrating Old Christmas with the Old Buck ceremony in Rodanthe, on Hatteras Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, on January 6th.
I first learned about Old Buck when I was a first-year graduate student in folklore at the University of North Carolina, but my professor, a native of North Carolina’s piedmont dismissed it as a pale echo of European hobby horse customs that was mostly an excuse for getting drunk, fighting, and shooting off rifles and shotguns. That was 1975, and I expect the Old Buck ceremony that he witnessed was, indeed, just that. In 1978 when I was doing fieldwork in the region of the Outer Banks I was not around for January 6th, so I can’t say if it had evolved at all at that time. But now it has been restored to respectability. It is not a tourist attraction, and is not generally advertised. Longtime residents of Rodanthe, do not want outsiders involved. Even back in the 1970s they were being inundated by “foreigners” (that is, northerners), who built massive houses on the ocean front that periodically got swept away by storms, and rebuilt. Locals had their homes well away from the ocean on the Pamlico Sound side of the island, where they were (mostly) sheltered from storms. It is in and around these homes that the Old Buck ceremony takes place. This description from the Outer Banks Sentinal gives the general flavor although there are some historical inaccuracies which I will pass over. I’ve added some photos. (http://www.obsentinel.com/features/and-now-it-is-time-for-old-christmas-celebrations/article_fefb40a7-700a-5c3f-811d-04f28034881d.html )
For more than 100 years residents of Rodanthe have celebrated two Christmases: the Christmas that comes with Santa Claus on Dec. 25, and Old Christmas, which is visited by “Old Buck” on Jan. 6. Held at Rodanthe Community Building, festivities begin on the first Saturday after Epiphany with Old Christmas Eve night.
Today, families from the villages of Rodanthe, Waves and Salvo gather to celebrate, roast oysters and await the bull of the hour. Tourists are welcome but seldom understand the meaning behind the added holiday.
In the late 70s, Old Christmas had gained the reputation of being a good place to participate in a good old-fashioned drunken brawl.
Towards evening Old Buck, the mythical wild bull, appears. He is a makeshift horned, masked creature, usually with the body of a blanket to cover the wearer. Legend has it that Old Buck impregnated every single cow in Buxton Woods and terrorized local farmers until a hunter finally shot him. His spirit survives in the Rodanthe hummocks and marshes.
Hence, Old Christmas Eve night (Jan. 5) was the time when natives used to say that the cattle came out to pray. It was also the time when the poke bush was reported to have appeared overnight, where none had grown before.
Old Christmas, also known as Little Christmas, Epiphany or Twelfth Night, is thought to have its origin in medieval England. Before the Calendar Act of 1751, England celebrated Christmas on the 6th day of January. In some parts of Great Britain, this date is still referred to as Old Christmas Day.
Another explanation for the date is that when the English Crown adopted the Georgian Calendar, shortening the year by eleven days, the Hatteras towns were not told until years later. When they were told, the Bankers simply refused to incorporate the change their calendar.
In Rodanthe in particular – in addition to the calendar timing – there was a practical reason for the celebration. Years ago the town was divided into two settlements – north and south Rodanthe (the Southern settlement became Waves) separated by a mile. It was hard for friends and family to gather on one holiday, so the natives of one settlement visited kin in the other and then on the second Christmas the process was reversed. The end result was that both sections managed to enjoy twice the fun.
One old custom recalled by Nell Wechter in a late 40s edition of the Coastland Times took place on Old Christmas Eve night. It was a custom in which some of the young girls in the community met, cooked a meal and set it on the table. The girls then hid under the table and waited for “ghosts” to appear. Because the waiting produced dead silence, the setting was called a “Dumb Table.” The ghosts themselves were supposed to look like the men the girls would one day marry.
Traditions of Old Christmas past also include beginning the festivities with fifes and drums playing eerie music at the crack of dawn to awaken natives.
Children and adults would put socks or homemade masks on their faces, dress in colorful clothing and run around singing Christmas carols to their neighbors as they awaited the appearance of Old Buck.
And finally, instead of a drunken brawl and dance to polish off the evening, revelers of yore gathered for a much tamer candy boiling punctuated by Christmas carols.
Roast oysters are traditional for supper on Old Christmas in Rodanthe. When I lived in the region they were usually roast over a driftwood fire on the beach. I wish you joy if you can do that. Maybe, however, you’d be more comfortable with Hatteras clam chowder, which I learned to make back in the 1970s. It is much like New England clam chowder, but does not have any cream or milk added. It is a simple dish, but time consuming because of the time it takes to remove the clam shells.
Hatteras Clam Chowder
about 100 littleneck clams, cleaned
2 onions, peeled and diced dice
5 cups peeled and diced potatoes
½ lb streaky, smoked bacon, coarsely chopped
salt and white pepper
chopped fresh parsley (optional)
Bring one quart of water, salted to taste, to the boil in a large saucepan. Add the clams, cover, and cook until the clams are open. Use a slotted spoon to remove the clams, discarding any that do not open. Do this step as quickly as possible so as not to overcook the clams.
Strain the cooking broth through a double layer of muslin, clean the pot, and return the broth to the pot.
Pick the clams from the shells and discard the shells. Set aside the clams.
In a heavy skillet, fry the bacon over medium-high heat until the fat is rendered, and the bacon pieces are cooked but soft. Remove them with a slotted spoon, and add them to the broth. Add the onions to the hot fat and fry them until they are just soft, but have not taken on color. Add them and the fat to the broth.
Bring the broth back to a simmer and add the potatoes. Cook them to your desired softness. North Carolina cooks like them falling apart, but I prefer them a little firmer. Cook’s choice.
Add back the clams, and let them heat through in the broth.
Serve in deep bowls, garnished with parsley if you want, with oyster crackers (or crusty bread).