Old Christmas on the Outer Banks
Even though the Tri-Villages of Hatteras Island, Rodanthe, Waves, and Salvo are the first towns on the road to Hatteras, in many ways they have been the most isolated over the years. They have certainly experienced change and modernization, but there is one tradition that the villages have carried over from the first days of British Colonial rule to today.
The Rodanthe Old Christmas was traditionally celebrated on January 5, 11 days after Christmas. That date has now changed, and it is held the closest Saturday to the Epiphany—January 7 in 2017.
The day includes food, games, and a procession around the community center where the celebration is held. The highlight is always a visit from “Old Buck,” a legendary bull who has inhabited the maritime forests of Hatteras Island for at least a few hundred years, according to lore. Old Buck makes his annual appearance at the Old Christmas celebration.
Island legend has it that Old Buck was the lucky survivor of an 18th century shipwreck. According to the stories associated with him, he was a handsome and stalwart animal, who upon reaching the Tri-Village area proceeded to insure genetic diversity in the feral cows living on the island at the time. He eventually wandered off into the local woods, never to be seen again…except at Old Christmas celebrations. It may be that Old Buck really does make an annual appearance and is a local inhabitant, but the tradition of an animal arriving for the Christmas holiday seems to date back to at least 7th century England.
An early Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore, noted in his writings that during Christmas, when the local population would celebrate, they would “…clothe themselves with the skins of cattle and carry heads of animals.”
It is not surprising that the Rodanthe Old Christmas recalls British traditions. The celebration’s roots are firmly planted in British colonial rule. The original date—January 5—traces its origins to what was, in 1752, a controversial decision. That was the year England adopted the Gregorian Calendar, chopping 11 days out of September, jumping from September 2 to 14 with nothing in between. The change, mandated in a 1751 law titled “An Act for Regulating the Commencement of the Year; and for Correcting the Calendar now in Use” applied to England and all colonies and nations under its control—including, of course, its American colonies. The law was necessary but very unpopular. It intended to align the British year that had been using the Julian Calendar with the Gregorian Calendar, which we now use.
The Julian Calendar, in use since Julius Caesar, was almost identical to the Gregorian calendar, but it was not quite correct in accounting for leap years. Consequently, it was getting ahead of the solar year and was becoming unreliable for use in knowing when seasons were going to change and religious holidays tied to the cycles of the seasons.
In 1582 Pope Gregory ordered all Catholic nations to use the new calendar. England, which had just fought a horrific civil war pitting the now dominant Church of England against the British Catholic Church, wanted nothing to do with any papal decrees and did not adopt the new calendar.
One hundred and seventy years later, England was the lone holdout among the major European powers, and it was causing confusion and economic disruption. Although the bill converting to the Gregorian calendar passed Parliament easily, it was very unpopular with the general population.
It was equally as unpopular in the colonies, which may be why the Rodanthe tradition of celebrating Christmas 11 days after the Gregorian December 25 is a remarkable step back in time.