By Kip Tabb | Correspondent
There is nothing quite like the Rodanthe Old Christmas. There is history, a good portion of downright contrariness and a wonderful sense of family and community wrapped up in a tradition that is well over 250 years old.
Celebrated on the Saturday after the Epiphany — Jan. 8 in 2022 — at some point Old Buck, an age-defying bull, will make his appearance amid steamed oysters, a lot of food, games and music at the Rodanthe-Waves-Salvo Community Center in Rodanthe.
There aren’t any records telling of the first time Old Buck decided the place to be 11 or 12 days after Christmas was Rodanthe, but for well over 100 years he has made his annual appearance.
According to legend, after escaping from a sinking ship, Old Buck swam ashore, and finding the local cows to his liking, decided Hatteras Island would be his new home. It’s not completely clear what happened to the bull after taking up residence on the Outer Banks, but every year at Old Christmas his spirit — or Old Buck himself — reappears in the form of a bull’s head with a cloth covered body.
The history of Old Buck certainly predates even the first English settler in Colonial America. It may not have been Old Buck, but the tradition of parading an animal head seems to have been a part of pagan yuletide rituals in the British Isles before Christianity even existed.
Those animal traditions came to the New World; there are a number of descriptions from the 18th and 19th centuries writing about deer horns and horse and bullheads at Christmas. And what they have in common is that they were all British colonies, or were at one time British colonies.
Understanding English history also helps to explain the delayed Rodanthe Christmas.
In 1751 Christmas in the British colonies was Dec. 25, just as it had always been. At that time, Britain was using the Julian Calendar which had been steadily falling out of sequence with the solar cycles used to mark the passage of years.
So in 1752, England adopted the Gregorian Calendar — the calendar we now use — a calendar that accounts for solar cycles more accurately than the Julian Calendar. To align with the new improved calendar, England had to get rid of 11 days, which the British Parliament did by decreeing the dates of Sept. 3 through Sept. 13, 1752 didn’t exist.
It’s unclear if, in 1752, the residents of Rodanthe knew about the change. The Outer Banks was a remote, sparsely populated area at that time and it is entirely possible that word had not found its way to the village. But if villagers didn’t know about the change in 1752, they certainly would have learned about it in the following years. And after learning of the new calendar and the 11 subtracted days, it appears as though they chose to ignore the new way of accounting for Christmas.
Although there may have been some plain contrariness in the decision, there is also the possibility that the decision to reject the new calendar was a faith-based choice.
Looking back on it from a 21st century point of view, the intransigence of the villagers seems quirky, perhaps illogical. But in 1750 England and its colonies, anti-Catholic feelings were rampant and strong.
And the Gregorian Calendar was a Catholic construct.
To understand what was happening requires a short trip into the history of calendars.
For thousands of years, calendars used lunar cycles to calculate the passage of time. Convenient and easily calculated — simply looking at the moon. They don’t work particularly well, though, because lunar cycles don’t match solar cycles and the sun determines the seasons.
In 46 BCE, Julius Caesar came up with a simple, effective solution. The Julian Calendar with its 12 months including one 28-day month that would have one day added every four years.
The problem with the Julian Calendar was that the calculations were slightly off by approximately 11 minutes per year. Inconsequential for the first 200 or 300 years. After 15 or 16 centuries, though, farmers could no longer use the calendar, and more importantly for the Catholic Church, religious holidays were no longer falling where they were supposed to occur.
So Pope Gregory XIII created a papal commission to study the problem and the commission recommended the solution suggested by Italian scientist Aloysius Lilius. The Gregorian Calendar was born.
Once the new calendar was approved, Gregory moved quickly. In 1582 he ruled that all Christian nations would jump from Oct. 4 to Oct. 15 with nothing in between. Except it wasn’t all Christian nations; it was all Roman Catholic nations, and that was the nub of the problem.
In 1582 the Church of England was well-established and England and the country were either at war or about to go to war with almost every Catholic nation in Europe—the Spanish Armada in 1588 is one example of that.
The English denounced the new Gregorian Calendar as a Papist conspiracy and continued on their merry way with the Julian Calendar.
By 1752 reality had set in. Although the Catholic Church was still dominant in Europe, other religions had taken hold. More importantly, though, English merchants trying to do business on the continent were at a disadvantage.
Bowing to the inevitable, the British Parliament mandated the Gregorian Calendar for England and its possessions. The discrepancy between the Julian and Gregorian calendars was now 11 days, so Sept. 3-13, 1752 does not exist in British history.
Originally the Rodanthe Christmas happened 11 days after the Gregorian Christmas, on Jan. 5. But over time, as people moved away and roads and transportation improved, the date was moved to the Saturday after the Epiphany to give families a better chance to gather.
There have been other changes as well. For some time, Old Christmas was when grudges and resentments built up over the past year were resolved, often, it seems, with a black eye. Supposedly this was when a young lady got to see her possible husband for the first time; and there was the tradition of men dressing as women and women as men.
If those tales are true, the Rodanthe Christmas is certainly not as rowdy as it once was, yet it remains a remarkable journey into tradition, history and community spirit.