Whitesburg KY
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‘Old Christmas’ was once widely celebrated in eastern Kentucky

To the Editor:

When I was growing up here in Letcher County, there were three holidays at the end of the year – Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Old Christmas. Of those three, New Year’s, sandwiched as it was between Old Christmas on January 6 and Christmas on December 25, sort of got lost. The major things that mark a New Year’s celebration as we know it – parties, liquor, and fireworks – were taken over by Christmas.

The result was that Christmas was not so much a religious holiday as a festivity – a kind of combination of a Christmas and a New Year’s celebration. The Christmas part was trees and presents, the New Year’s part was alcohol and fireworks, and the whole day was a party. On Christmas Day, the men in the house drank moonshine all day long, and expected every visitor to partake (or at least every male visitor). In fact, Christmas in those days was a real boon for moonshiners, because businesses bought moonshine and passed it out to employees.

Fireworks as a Christmas tradition didn’t then necessarily mean cherry bombs and Roman candles as it does today. If people could afford to buy them, they might. But most people improvised. Then and now, everybody shot off guns as a substitute for fireworks. I can remember being at my grandparents’ house at Mill Branch on Christmas when every house shot off guns all day long. One of the big Christmas fireworks traditions was to make carbide cannons, which made wonderful and very loud fireworks. I remember walking past one house on Mill Branch where they had shot off so many carbide cannons that the valley was filled with smoke.

Although people here still celebrate Christmas with fireworks and still shoot off guns, you don’t see carbide cannons anymore, at least to my knowledge. I suspect the fading of that custom has to do with the fading of old mining ways and underground mining. In the old days, miners had carbide lights in their hardhats, so carbide was readily available.

Shooting matches were held all through the holiday season.

The prizes might have been anything, but a common thing was to “shoot off a hog.” People who raised more than one hog often killed one in early November after it got cold enough, and another in December. A lot of people then put up the second hog for the shooting match. People shot for prizes of hams, packages of pork chops, and so on.

We had other Christmas traditions that have faded out. One was to write notes to Santa Claus and send them up the chimney. The scientific explanation may be that the draft carried them up, but the tradition was that it was fairies. Part of the dying of that tradition is probably related to central heat and closed stoves.

Another Christmas tradition was that of “Christmas Gift.” If you encountered somebody on Christmas Day, you tried to call out “Christmas Gift” before they did. If you got it in first, then they had to give you something – nothing very big, but something. Although my wife grew up in Southern Appalachia only about 120 miles away from here, that was new to her. But she learned from me to answer the phone on Christmas with “Christmas Gift” instead of “Hello,” because if you didn’t you would hear “Christmas Gift” barreling down the phone line from my brother or one of my sisters. In the days before caller ID, it led to some embarrassment to find that you’d greeted a total stranger with “Christmas Gift,” but that was better than being caught yourself, especially because you felt so triumphant if you got it in first. My sister Martha is particularly good at “Christmas Gifting” people. Over the years she’s caught me so many times and I am so far in arrears that there’s no hope of ever catching up.

We always got a big peppermint log at Christmas. You took the back of a butcher knife and knocked off pieces to suck on. In fact, between the peppermint log and the traditional hard candy, your mouth would stay sore all through the holidays.

Christmas dinner was different from today. Few kept geese, and most were not that crazy about turkey, so Christmas dinner was always chicken or ham. Everybody had chicken and pigs. In fact, in Appalachia, pork was the staple meat. People might have a milk cow, but very few raised cattle for meat. Steak to us was cubed steak, floured and fried like chicken. A lot of Appalachian children growing up then were adults before they ate what most people think of as steak.

Old Christmas had its own traditions. According to one version (probably correct), Old Christmas arose out of the change from the Gregorian Calendar to the Julian Calendar. Most of Europe adopted the new Julian Calendar at least a couple of hundred years before Great Britain did. The result was that, when the English and Scots and Irish finally adopted the Julian calendar, there was a difference of twelve days between the Gregorian Calendar they had continued to use and the Julian Calendar they were about to adopt.

Sometime in the changeover year, the calendar was jumped forward twelve days, I believe from the 5th to the 17th of September. A lot of people felt they had lost twelve days and wanted to know where they went. A lot more were less than enthusiastic about going to the new calendar. For one thing, it made Christmas come up twelve days earlier than it would have if nobody had been fooling with the calendar. People who believed that Jesus was actually born on the day they had traditionally celebrated were not willing to celebrate Christmas twelve days earlier than that day, so they started celebrating Christmas on the 6th of January, twelve days after the new December 25.

Since Appalachia was settled around the time of the calendar change by Scots-Irish, the latter brought the custom of Old Christmas (often called Epiphany) with them. And since Appalachia stayed relatively isolated over the years, the tradition held on here long after most of the country had forgotten it.

On Old Christmas, you got presents again. But on Old Christmas eve, instead of hanging stockings as you did for Christmas, you put your shoes beside your bed the night before. When you woke up on Old Christmas, they were full of candy and other goodies.

My Caudill grandmother always made a big flat cookie that she baked only on Old Christmas and that everybody shared. 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 bust.

For those of you reading this who still observe Old Christmas as we plan to this year, have a happy holiday.


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