By Steve Roark

Volunteer Interpreter, Cumberland Gap National Park

(Used with permission)


You can learn a lot from talking with elders.  In a conversation about Christmas with my mother some years ago I learned that the Christmas of her childhood had an extra bit of celebration.  Her father Sillus Day would always hold back some candy from Christmas in a big, locked chest and would give it out on January 6, a day he called “Old Christmas”.  Mom remembers him saying that it took 12 days for the wise men to travel to Bethlehem to find Jesus, an event worth celebrating.  I had never heard of Old Christmas, so I went on a research mission, and it turns out Old Christmas was celebrated across pockets of Appalachia for centuries but has about faded away.

January 6 is indeed accepted by many Western-Christian faiths as the day the wise men came to see the infant Jesus, and calendars call it the Day of Epiphany, a Greek word that means “appearance.” So the Epiphany is a celebration of the day that Jesus first appeared to Gentiles, and it’s celebrated in many cultures, especially Latin American. There it is observed as the Day of the Kings or Three Kings Day.  Many give gifts on this day, and in some places, it is traditional to give a gift for each of the 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany, inspiring the song Twelve Days of Christmas, turtle doves and all.

But calling January 6 Old Christmas is a little more complicated than that.  Around 45 BC Julius Caesar ordered the creation of a more accurate calendar that became known as the Julian calendar. It had 365 ¼ days divided into 12 months.  But despite the inclusion of leap years, the Julian calendar overestimated the length of a year by eleven minutes fifteen seconds, which comes to one day every 128 years.  By the 16th century, the calendar was 10 days ahead of what it should have been, like a clock that runs a little fast.  So in 1582, reforms were instituted by Pope Gregory the 13th that chopped off the eleven-minute error in the length of the year and deleted the accumulated 10 days.  This new Gregorian calendar was adopted throughout Catholic Europe.

Well, Protestant-dominated England was not going to be told what to do by some pope, so it kept to the old Julian calendar, meaning that London was 10 days ahead of Paris.  By the time England came around to adopting the Gregorian calendar in the 18th century, it was 11 days ahead of the rest of Europe.  So the Calendar Act was passed in 1751, which stated that in order to bring England back in sync, the day following September 2nd of 1752 was to be called the 14th rather than the 3rd.  This caused a great upheaval among people who didn’t understand it all and thought that the government was taking 11 days of their lives.

Anyway, before the calendar was reformed, England celebrated Christmas on the equivalent of the 6th of January by Gregorian calendar reckoning.  And so it came to be called Old Christmas Day by many people of Great Britain.  Some of the Scots Irish immigrants that eventually populated our mountains tenaciously held on to a very old European tradition that my grandfather still recognized, which I find amazing. Talk to older folk and take notes.  You never know what you may learn.