Friday, January 6, 2017

Breakin' Up (Old) Christmas

Merry Old Christmas!

Today is Little Christmas, as my English mother called it. It is also called Old Christmas by many, including the Amish. And article explaining the origin of Old Christmas appeared in The Pinecraft Pauper, an Amish newspaper from Sarasota, Florida:
"January 6th is still widely observed as a holiday by many plain folks, who commemorate the Epiphany with rest and fasting.  The Epiphany, traditionally, is the day in which the wise men brought gifts to Jesus.  However, January 6th is called “Old Christmas” because in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII deleted ten days, eleven minutes, and fifteen seconds from the calendar, to realign it with the seasons of the year, thus technically moving Christmas from Dec. 25th to Jan. 6th. The Scotch-Irish Mountain folks up in Tennessee still call the 6th “Old Christmas”.  Their tradition has it that one ought never lend anything to anybody on that day, for the lender will never get it back."

I had never heard this about not lending anything on Old Christmas,  but I guess now we're forewarned.

The Irish call it Little Christmas (in Irish: Nollaig na mBan) , same as my mother called it, and also Women's Christmas.According to Irish Central: 

"Traditionally in Ireland (and apparently in Puerto Rico also), Nollaig na mBan is the day on which all the Christmas decorations must come down—not before or after—or else risk bad luck for the rest of the year. When holly was the only decoration in Irish homes, it was taken down on this day and burnt.
Nollaig na mBan can be translated from Irish (Gaelic) as "Women's Christmas" and in this lies the biggest Irish tradition on January 6. On this day, the last day of Christmas, women would, finally, get a much-needed rest after catering to everyone during the festivities. An article from the Irish Times in 1998 joked that even God rested on the seventh day, Irish women didn't stop until the twelfth!"

Many people here in the mountains continued to celebrate Christmas on this date as well, although the tradition seems to be dying out. And of course, there were superstitions attached to the celebrations.Spirits were believed to be out walking, elderberry bushes were said to bloom, and animals would talk in their stalls, along with many others. 

The website  Roadside Theater has a long list of appalachian Christmas superstitions, including these that are spcific to Old Christmas:

Children born on January 6 are special and often develop powers for healing the sick.

Coals and ashes from the Christmas fire should never be thrown out that day, and no coal of fire or light should be given away. (The Druids believed that each individual coal represented the spirit of a dearly departed kinsman and that they protected the home during the Yule season.)

Bees hum from dusk until dawn on Old Christmas (January 6). Some say they sing the hundredth Psalm, come out of the hive at midnight, and swarm as they do in summer.

Roy Helton's poem about Old Christmas includes many of these superstitions; it's a haunting tale to be sure:

Old Christmas Morning
by Roy Helton (1886-1977)

"Where you comin' from, Lomey Carter,
so airly over the snow,
What's them pretties you got in your hand,
Where you aimin' to go?
"Step in, honey, Old Chrismas mornin',
I ain't got nothin' much,
Maybe a bite of sweetness and cornbread,
A little ham meat and such,
But step in, honey,
Sally Anne Barton is hungerin' after your face,
Wait till I light my candle up,
Sit down, there's your old place,
Where you been so airly this mornin'?"
"Graveyard, Sally Anne,
Up by the trace in the salt lick meadow,
Where Talbe kilt my man,"
"Ole' Talbe ain't to home this mornin',
I can't scratch up a light,
Dampness gets on the heads of these matches,
But I'll blow up the embers bright.."
"Needn't trouble, I won't be stayin',
Goin' a long way still..."
"You didn't see nothing', Lomey Carter,
Up on that graveyard hill?"
"What should I see there, Sally Ann Barton?"
"Well, spirit's do walk last night..."
"There were an elderbush a'bloomin'
While the moon still give some light..."
"Yes, elderbushes, they bloom, Old Christmas,
And critters kneel down in the straw...
Anything else up in that graveyard?"
"One thing more I saw,
I saw my man with his head all bleedin'
Where Talbe's shot went through...
"What did he say?"
"He stooped and kissed me..."
"But what did he say to you?"
"He said the Lord Jesus forguve your Talbe,
He told me another word,
He said it soft when he stooped to kiss me,
That were the last I heard..."
"Ole Talbe ain't to home this mornin'..."
"I know that, Sally Anne,
I met him upon the meadow trace
Where Talbe kilt my man,
I met him upon the meadow trace
And the moon were faintin' fast,
I had my dead mean's rifle-gun
And I kilt him as he come past,"
"I heard two shots."
"Twas his was second,
He kilt me 'fore he died,
You'll find us at daybreak
Sally Anne Barton,
I'm lyin' there dead at his side."
(Poem written in Appalachian dialect by Roy Helton)

Well, that was a bit dark! 

Today we will celebrate by having eggnog and fruitcake by the fire, and taking down our decorations at last. It has been a lovely Christmas season, and I am sad to see it go. I guess it will be a breaking up Christmas party for two here as we pack away ornaments and memories.

To help with today's un-decorating, here's the Appalachian tune, Breaking Up Christmas:


Good-bye. Christmas, for another year!


Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

2 comments:

Michelle said...

My husband and I were discussing this just last night. He was not familiar with the tradition in his family, but I was. Growing up we didn't take down any decorations until after the first week of January was over.

Jenny said...

I vaguely know about Old Christmas, not much more than the date. It was fun to read this.

I still haven't taken my decorations down. I actually planned to do it today & my husband is off work. He talked me into waiting until next week. I'm not sure if he doesn't want the mess or he really wants to enjoy them through the weekend!

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