There are several lovely old mountain tunes that refer to “Old Christmas”, yet few people are aware of this now all but forgotten Appalachian tradition.
Erynn Marshall performing “Old Christmas Morning”
Origins of Old Christmas
According to the 1917 book, Old Christmas and Other Kentucky Tales in Verse1, “Old Christmas occurs on the 6th of January as it did in England before the change in the calendar in the eighteenth century, and as it still does in lands spiritually controlled by the Greek Church”.
The calendar we use today was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. The Julian calendar, which had been implemented by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C had miscalculated the length of the solar year by about 11 minutes, so by the 16th century, the calendar had become out of sync with the seasons. By including an extra day in February every four years (unless the year is divisible by 100 and not by 400), the Gregorian calendar roughly resolved the problem (to within about 27 seconds a year).
Catholic countries, including Spain, Portugal, Italy, and most of France went along with the calendar calculation change, along with a one-time fix of eliminating ten days from the calendar. However, a lot of Protestants weren’t about to listen to the Pope and rejected it as an elaborate plot to return them to the Catholic fold. Denmark, Prussia, and the Protestant states of Germany gave in and switched over in 1700, by which time eleven days had to be removed. Orthodox countries and their national churches never succumbed, but eventually proposed a revised Julian calendar in 1923 for religious purposes (which brings them in sync until the year 2800.
England held out until Parliament enacted the Calendar (New Style) Act of 1750, which made the shift in September of 1752, when eleven days were removed. So the dates between the 2nd and 14th of September, 1752 do not exist in U.S. or British history (the eastern U.S. was still part of the British Empire at that time). There were reportedly some protests in England, but here in the U.S., Benjamin Franklin was unphased, saying, “It is pleasant for an old man to be able to go to bed on September 2, and not have to get up until September 14.”
In some remote areas of Appalachia, they either failed to hear about the change or mistrusted the new date-keeping system and saw no reason to comply, and so continued to celebrate Christmas on the old December 25th. If Jesus was born on that day, how can you just move it forward arbitrarily? When they did finally adopt the new calendar, they had been celebrating Christmas on what was now January 6th – the eleven day difference had now stretched to twelve, and many people continued to celebrate it on that date while also incorporating the new Christmas into the season.
There is some discussion that this new twelve day period (and the festivities that happened between New Christmas and Old Christmas) was the origin of what we call “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, but this theory does not bear up to scrutiny, as Epiphany was celebrated on January 6th long before the Gregorian Calendar was created, and Twelfth Night celebrations date back to medieval times.
However, the fact that Old Christmas now coincided with Epiphany may have something to do with why it persisted in Appalachian culture, as the two celebrations became one. Epiphany was an ancient Christian feast day and marks the official end of the festival season, a celebration of the visit to the baby Jesus by the three Wise Men. In the West, Christians began celebrating Epiphany in the 4th century.
There are a couple of things that seem to relate Old Christmas to Epiphany − for one thing, there was an Old Christmas practice which was also common in Europe of children leaving their shoes out the night before the Epiphany to be filled with gifts (as opposed to the practice of hanging stockings for “new” Christmas. or what some in Appalachia called the “man-made Christmas”). Also, legend has it that if you are in the barn at midnight the eve of Old Christmas, a miracle occurs with the animals, presumably related to the manger story:
And there is of course a legend that animals are gifted with speech on Old Christmas. There’s a song that goes, “On Christmas Eve, The Animals Pray, On Christmas Eve, So They Say.” That Christmas Eve referred to the night before Old Christmas. I’ve always heard that legend, but never been in a barn or manger at midnight to test it for myself. The only time I tried, I fell asleep before midnight so it was a bust2.
Breaking Up Christmas
Despite the religious nature of the two Christmas holidays, the season was marked by at least 12 days of partying and dancing known as Breaking up Christmas, particularly in the Round Peak area and all over North Carolina and Southwest Virginia. There were nightly house parties where the furniture was moved out of the houses to make way for musicians, friends, dancing, food, and drink. The next night, another home would host the party in an ongoing celebration that started a few days before Christmas and lasted until Old Christmas, January 6th — “two solid weeks” of Christmas parties, according to Eleanor Coleson, interviewed by Paul Brown for his excellent radio program, “Blue Ridge Mountain Holiday — The Breaking Up Christmas Story” (released on County Records)3. Old Christmas night saw bonfires, and the shooting of guns and fireworks.
The tradition began fading after WWII as other forms of entertainment (like television) began to dominate American life, and country, bluegrass, and rock and roll began to displace old-time string band music in the culture. There are several small revivals today, but nothing like the scale of what was taking place in Round Peak around the turn of the 19th century.
Breakin’ Up Christmas is also the title of probably the most played of the various Christmas related fiddle tunes. “Through this country here, they’d go from house to house almost – have a dance at one house, then go off to the next one the following night and all such as that…They’d play a tune called Breakin’ Up Christmas, that was the last dance they’d have on Christmas, they’d have Wallace Spanger play Breakin’ Up Christmas. There’s an old feller by the name of Bozwell, he’d cry every time”4. – Lawrence Bolt, fiddler, b. 1894
The lyrics vary, as can the tune slightly, but it goes something like this:
Hooray Jake, hooray John
Breakin’ up Christmas all night long
Way back yonder, long time ago
The old folks danced the doesey-doe
Way down yonder alongside the creek
I seen Santa Claus washing his feet*
Santa Claus come, done and gone
Breaking up Christmas right along
* I’ve actually only seen this verse written, never recorded
Though it is today most closely associated with Tommy Jarrell, the composer of the tune is not definitively known, but it originated in the Round Peak area of North Carolina and spread all over the state and southwest Virginia. Paul Sutphin, a neighbor and early collaborator with the Jarrell family who was born in 1918 on Round Peak Mountain credited the tune to one of his old neighbors named Preston “Pet” McKinney, a Civil War Veteran from Lambsburg, VA that he himself was too young to have met: “Yeah, that’s old man Pet McKinney’s tune…he made up this ‘Breaking Up Christmas’…he’s the first man to ever fiddle it.” Sutphin didn’t know who wrote the words, only that they also were around before he was born3.
There are several tunes called Old Christmas Morning. This is probably the best known, by French Carpenter of Clay County, West Virginia (the source for Erynn Marshall’s version above). Like Breakin’ Up Christmas, it is in cross A fiddle tuning (standard fiddle tuning is GDAE, but for A major cross tuning, the G and D string are each raised a whole step to AEAE).
Dan Gellert doing the same tune
There are also several tunes simply called Old Christmas. Here’s one by Hilarie Burhans, from the playing of Boyd Asher of Kentucky. “If anyone heard a loud buzzing coming from their beehives last night at midnight, or noticed their cows kneeling, it’s because on the eve of Old Christmas (Christmas as traditionally celebrated in many parts of Appalachia on January 6th) animals traditionally did that sort of thing”5.
Here’s the 1937 tune, Old Christmas, by Boyd Asher in standard G tuning (thanks to Slippery Hill for making source recordings of so many great fiddle tunes available. Support the media that is important to you!)
And a different tune of the same name here performed by Mark Nelson, learned from Tom Carter of the the Deseret String Band
– David Ritchie