By Elizabeth Harris
Photography courtesy of the Outer Banks History Center, State Archives of North Carolina
November 27, 2020
A lot has changed on Hatteras Island over the past two centuries. Yet even as the island has evolved from a sparsely populated and remote outpost for fishermen, hunters and homesteaders into a major tourism destination, at least one vestige of its heritage remains: Old Christmas.
Those with lifelong ties to the northern Hatteras Island villages of Rodanthe, Waves and Salvo typically celebrate Christmas with their families on Dec. 25 like everyone else. But about 10 or 12 days later, on the Saturday closest to Epiphany, aka Twelfth Night, they come together as a village to recognize Old Christmas.
“It’s something I’m going to carry on as long as I can do my part,” says Connie Midgett Page, who grew up on Hatteras Island but now lives in Chesapeake and returns to Rodanthe every year to celebrate the holiday.
Thanks to COVID-19, whether it will be held in 2021 remains to be seen.
“It hasn’t missed a year in more than 200 years,” Page says. “We would hate to miss a year, but we want to be safe.” She says they’ll make a decision at the end of November and will respect all North Carolina coronavirus pandemic requirements.
The origins of Old Christmas depend on who you ask. Some say it dates back to 1752, when the British Empire switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, forcing them to drop 11 days from the calendar year. Thus, Christmas Day changed from Jan. 6 to Dec. 25. People in remote areas of the New World – places like Hatteras Island – were the last to get the word about this change. It’s said when the Hatteras Island residents found out about the new calendar, they refused to recognize it. Eventually, of course, the islanders conformed, but they continued to recognize “old” Christmas in addition to the “new” Christmas.
Others say the custom is just a carryover from the island’s early residents of Anglo descent, who recognized Epiphany on Jan. 6. Whatever the reason, it is a uniquely Hatteras Island tradition that has been celebrated since the 1700s.
Old Christmas is held annually at the Rodanthe-Waves-Salvo Community Center in Rodanthe, just across N.C. 12 from the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site. (Chicamacomico is the historic name of Rodanthe, by the way.) It’s a loosely structured gathering, more like a family reunion than a religious observance. There’s no Facebook page for the event, and no one sends out a press release. It’s all word of mouth among the regulars and locals, but if anyone else shows up they’ll be welcomed.
“It’s all rather loosey-goosey, more like an in-gathering,” says Mary-Helen Goodloe Murphy, who’s lived in Rodanthe for decades. She always goes to take pictures for the newspaper but still doesn’t feel like a part of the official Old Christmas community.
The event begins in the early afternoon with an oyster shoot, a test of marksmanship in which the winners receive a half-bushel of oysters. As the day goes on, a feast begins. Outdoors, by the bonfire, there are roasted oysters and cold beer. Indoors, it’s scratch-made chicken and pastry, side dishes and homemade desserts. Guests pay an admission fee that covers
the cost of food.
The preparation of the homemade chicken and pastry, also known as pie bread, is customary. It’s a labor-intensive endeavor and they “make an awful flour mess,” Page says, but it’s a group effort and helpers are usually welcomed.
“It used to be my mother and her sisters-in-law, and before that it was their mothers,” Page says of the cooks. “One year my mother and the other women said, ‘This is it. We’re not doing the pastry anymore.’” Thus, the tradition was passed to a new generation. The women in the kitchen roll
out pastry by hand, cut it into thin strips, then add it to stewed chicken.
“Some say it would be easier to fix something like barbecue and hot dogs,” Page says. “But that’s not the tradition. It’s all fun, and we have a good time being together in the kitchen.”
The convention of chicken and pastry started because in the old days every family in the village had chickens. On the morning of Old Christmas, it’s said, young men would parade through the village, collecting donated chickens, as well as cakes and pies, from each family for the day’s feast.
In the older days, after the feast, Santa would arrive with stockings for the children. That tradition has passed, and these days a band starts up and everyone begins to dance. The highlight of the event, then and now, is the arrival of Old Buck.
The longest-running custom of Old Christmas, Old Buck is a comical makeshift bull. Two men crawl under a wood frame covered by a blanket, somewhat resembling a bovine body propelled by human legs and feet, and topped off with a horned steer’s head on a stick. Old Buck bumps clumsily into the room, knocking into people and chairs and causing a bit of ruckus, then is gone again until the next year.
Old Buck is tied to a legend about a passing ship carrying a load of cattle. The ship wrecked off Hatteras Island during a storm, and all of the cattle on board perished but one. The bull that swam ashore lived among the free-roaming cattle on the island and sired many calves, for which the islanders were grateful. Old Buck, or Bucca, as the bull was known, was gentle enough to allow children to ride on his back and was beloved in the community. One day Old Buck wandered down the island and was shot by a hunter in Trent Woods. The saddened island residents then chose to honor the bull with his replica at Old Christmas.
Other traditions have fallen away. The earliest accounts tell of minstrels with painted faces, men dressed as women and women as men and girls spying their future husbands. Old timers remember being awakened by the eerie music of drums and fifes and everyone joining the procession that led to the feast.
It’s said a member of the Payne family always beat the island drum, but there are conflicting legends as to how the drum came to the island.
Writer Charles Whedbee’s story is that a Scottish sailor was found clinging to the drum in the sea after his ship went down in the Great Autumn Storm of 1758. He was rescued by a man named Payne. The Scot married into the community and left the drum to the Payne family when he died. However, Brad Payne, who was the drum beater in the 1950s, said he was told the drum was used by a company of militia on the lower banks of Kinnakeet (now Avon) and lingered on the island after the militia moved on. However it arrived, the same drum is brought back every year.
For a long time, the surfmen at Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station organized Old Christmas. According to lore, people gathered at the station, where Capt. Ben Midgett would shoot apples off the head of Surfman Thomas Payne with a .22-caliber rifle. Today’s oyster shoot, started by a surfman as a test of skill, dates back to the lifesaving station days.
By the mid-1920s, children were very much involved in the celebration. There were pageants, candy pulls, poem recitations, songs and more. The festivities had moved from the lifesaving station to the schoolhouse (now the community center), and included a square dance and a more raucous performance by Old Buck, with people trying to jump on his back. Once, people say, upended tacks were used to deter this practice.
For decades, it’s said, Old Christmas also had a tradition of hard drinking and brawling among the men. The men would settle any old grudges and disputes, thus starting the new year “with a black eye and a clean slate.”
These days, the event is much more family-oriented. And while it is a holiday intended for longtime local families, newcomers and visitors are welcome. As Barbara Garrity-Blake wrote in a National Park Service-published history of the island, “Old Christmas has the feel of dropping in on someone else’s family reunion, not only because most of the attendees are kin, but also because some of the customs are foreign, if not inscrutable,
to the visitor.”
The event brings closure to the holiday season. Anyone is welcome to participate in the oyster shoot, pay for and enjoy a dinner and dance to the music. If you go, though, be sure to be as friendly as these Hatteras Island folks. Pitch in to help, maybe with cooking the chicken and pastry, moving chairs for the band, listening to the old-timers tell the stories and cleaning up when it’s all said and done.
Want to go?
Due to COVID-19, at publication time no one was sure what would become of Old Christmas 2021. It may be cancelled or it may be held in a reduced fashion outdoors only. If any of the celebrations do occur, they’ll be held on Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021, at the Rodanthe-Waves-Salvo Community Center in Rodanthe. The festivities typically start around 1 p.m.