2013-12-25 / Features

Appalachians once celebrated ‘Old Christmas’


Christmas used to be celebrated on what is now January 6. The Catholic Church changed the day of celebration to December 25 in the late 1500’s. However, Protestant Great Britain and the American colonies continued celebrating the birth of Jesus on January 6 until the mid-1700’s.

Many of our independent thinking ancestors living in the southern Appalachian Mountains clung to the older traditional day of Christmas for another 100 years or so. Even today, some of us acknowledge the January 6 celebration of Old Christmas in our own quiet, non-commercial ways.

Following is a history of how “Old Christmas” came about:

Through the centuries before the birth of Christ, the calendar used by the Roman Empire was based on the phases of the moon. Several adjustments to the calendar, including changing the number of months, altered the number of days in a year, but none of the adjustments matched exactly the revolution of the earth around the sun.

In the last century before the birth of Christ, during the rule of Julius Caesar, the Julian calendar was adopted. The Julian calendar was based on the solar year and had 365 days in each year with an extra day added to February every 4 years to create Leap Year. Astronomers knew at that time that the Julian calendar did not exactly match the earth’s revolution around the sun; however, they apparently considered the error to be insignificant, and the Julian calendar was used for the next 16 centuries.

With Leap Days calculated in, the Julian calendar averaged 365 days plus 6 hours each year. The problem with that was the earth’s revolution around the sun was a few minutes shorter than that. The accumulated effect of these extra minutes included in the calendar each year added 3 extra days every 4 centuries. For example, if the spring equinox occurred on March 21 one year, then it would occur on March 18 four centuries later and on March 15 eight centuries later. These extra days threw off the alignment of Christianity’s most revered day, Easter, with the spring equinox. By the time a new calendar system was adopted, astronomers determined that 10 days needed to be removed from the Julian calendar to properly realign Easter with the spring equinox.

In 1582, under the leadership of Pope Gregory XIII, the Catholic Church adopted the Gregorian calendar that calculated leap days differently than did the Julian calendar. To realign Easter with the spring equinox, October 4, 1582, on the Julian calendar was followed the next day by October 15, 1582, on the Gregorian calendar. This removed the extra 10 days (October 5 through October 14) gained while using the Julian calendar.

In both the Julian calendar and the Gregorian calendar, Leap Years occur in those years that are divisible by 4. For example, 2012 and 2016 are Leap Years, and 2013, 1014, and 2015 are not Leap Years in both calendar systems. The Gregorian calendar differs from the Julian calendar in the following manner: In the Gregorian calendar, a year divisible by 100 is NOT a Leap Year unless the year is also divisible by 400. For example, 1600, 2000, and 2400 are Leap Years because each is divisible by both 100 and 400. 1700, 1800, 1900, 2100, 2200, and 2300 are not Leap Years in the Gregorian calendar because, although those years are divisible by 100, they are not divisible by 400. 1700, 1800, 1900, 2100, 2200, and 2300 are Leap Years in the old Julian calendar.

The Middle Ages, often defined as 500 A.D. to 1500 A.D., saw the rise of Christianity in the form of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church became very wealthy and powerful, yielding total control over the daily affairs of everyone, from serfs to kings. The Catholic Church passed their own laws, created their own methods of paying homage, and accessed taxes. People feared to resist the Church; anyone one who did was excommunicated and condemned straight to Hell when they died.

By the end of the Middle Ages, the iron fisted rule of the Catholic Church was beginning to weaken. In England, King Henry VIII, who ruled from 1509 to 1547, broke with the Catholic Church and created the Church of England. Other conflicts with the Catholic Church occurred in England and northern Europe. Soon the Protestant Reformation was in full swing.

When Pope Gregory XIII and the Catholic Church adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1582, those countries which remained under the influence of the Catholic Church switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. However, many of the countries which had become Protestant continued to use the Julian calendar.

The British Calendar Act of 1751 required the British Empire and the American Colonies to adopt the Gregorian calendar in September 1752. By this time, another day had been gained by the Julian calendar. To conform to the existing Gregorian calendar which had already removed the 10 days that the Julian calendar had improperly added, 11 days needed to be removed from the British calendar: Wednesday, September 2, 1752, was followed by Thursday, September 14, 1752. This jump of 12 days resulted in Christmas occurring 12 days earlier.

In the 170 years between the time the Gregorian calendar was adopted by the Catholic world and the time that it was finally adopted by Great Britain and her colonies, the New World was explored, colonies under British control were established on the eastern coast of America, and the southern Appalachian Mountains became settled by many of our ancestors. During this time, Great Britain and the American colonists still used the Julian calendar.

The pioneers of the southern Appalachian Mountains were a hardy lot and furiously independent. They wanted to live their lives in isolation, free of the intrusions of government. To be told by some far away government to change their calendar and the dates of their celebrations did not sit well with them. Many of them were less than enthusiastic about the new Gregorian calendar and were not willing to adopt all of its changes. Christmas had long been celebrated on January 6th, a couple of weeks after the winter solstice, and many people were not willing to celebrate Christmas on an earlier date; many continued to celebrate Old Christmas 12 days after the December 25th celebration date set by the new calendar. Since Appalachia stayed relatively isolated over the years, this tradition held on here long after most of the country had forgotten it. But, even here, the celebration of Old Christmas has faded away until today only a few of us still acknowledge the January 6 celebration of Old Christmas. Unfortunately, many of today’s young folks have never even heard of Old Christmas, letting alone, having celebrated it. In another generation or two, celebrating Old Christmas will be a thing of the past, and another old-time mountain tradition will have been completely forgotten.

Old Christmas side notes:

A story behind the break between England and the Catholic Church goes something like this. King Henry VIII of England was married to his first wife Catherine of Aragon when his roving eye fell upon the charming Anne Boleyn. Unlike her sister Mary, Anne resisted the King’s advances, so King Henry, a practicing Catholic, submitted to his papal supremacy a request for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine. However, the Pope denied the King’s request. Since the King’s passion for Anne was stronger than his Catholic devoutness, the King thumbed his nose at the Catholic Church, created the Church of England, and appointed himself to be the head of the new Church. Soon Anne Boleyn lived in the King’s castle, but the King’s passion for her soon died and Anne did too; the King had her executed. A few days after Anne’s execution, King Henry married Jane Seynour who died after giving birth to Prince Edward, later to become King Edward VI. King Henry then married Anne of Cleves, but that marriage was soon annulled so that he could marry Catherine Howard whom the King later had beheaded. The King’s sixth and last wife was Catherine Paar.


The British Empire was not the last to adopt the Gregorian calendar. Some countries adopted it only within the last 100 years: Russia after their revolution in 1918, Greece in 1923, and China after their 1949 revolution. Many Orthodox religions still use the Julian calendar to set some religious dates. Some Muslim and Hebrew countries still use their own calendar systems.


The Gregorian calendar is not 100% accurate. It adds an average of 26 seconds each year. Like it did to the astronomers of Julius Caesar’s time, these extra 26 seconds may seem insignificant, but their accumulated effect will add an extra day every few thousand years. To make the Gregorian calendar more accurate, it has been proposed to make those years divisible by 4000 to be common years instead of Leap Years as the Gregorian calendar now designates. This proposal has not been adopted.

In some places, it is traditional to give Christmas gifts for each of the Twelve Days of Christmas from December 25 until January 6. In some cultures, January 6 is the day for giving gifts to celebrate the time the Wise Men or Magi arrived to present gifts to the Baby Jesus.


Most of our current Christmas traditions were created in the 1800’s from a melding of the various traditions brought to America by immigrants. One such tradition was to decorate their cabins on Christmas Eve (December 24) and take down those decorations on Old Christmas. The decoration was whatever was available during midwinter and included candles, pine boughs, holly branches, and mistletoe. Homegrown popcorn strung on strings, stored apples, and dried berries were also used. Much of the edible decorations were consumed on Old Christmas. Cooking, dancing, games, going to church, and visiting were the main Christmastime activities, and much of this merriment occurred on the Twelfth Night or Old Christmas. Christmas in the 1800’s certainly was not commercialized. A small, inexpensive gift or two, accompanied by sweets, were given by the parents to their children. The fireworks were the shooting of guns and much wine and moonshine were consumed.

References: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_ calendar http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_ calendar http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregorian_ calendar http://www.lordsandladies.org/middle-ages-religion. htm http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_ VIII_ of_ England

Tony Blair is a retired school teacher living at Jeremiah.

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