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In search of Old Christmas

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Traditions remain from pioneer days

By Dwane Wilder

EAST TENNESSEE—When the early pioneers first crossed the Appalachian Mountains into what is now Tennessee, they brought with them Christmas traditions from their European ancestors.

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Many families of English and Scots-Irish heritage celebrated what is known as Old or Little Christmas, an observance held on Jan. 6 almost two weeks after the date most mark the holiday. Old Christmas draws parallels with the Epiphany, a Christian festival commemorating in the Western Church the manifestation of Christ to the Magi.

Steve Roark of Tazewell said his maternal grandfather, Sillus Day, born in 1887 in Claiborne County, observed Old Christmas every year.

“In a conversation about Christmas with my mother, I learned that Christmas was pretty simple back then, with the kids getting candy, some fruit and maybe — but not always — a small toy,” said Roark. “Her father would keep some of the candy locked away in a big chest and would give it out on Jan. 6, a day he called Old Christmas. Mom remembers him telling that it took 12 days for the wise men to travel to Bethlehem to find Jesus, an event worth celebrating a little. My grandfather apparently hung onto old ways, as I can remember him pronouncing words that I thought as a child was because of ignorance. But now I realize the pronunciations were old world European remnants that are a part of our Appalachian dialect.”

Many Western-Christian churches accept Jan. 6 as the day the Magi came to see the infant Jesus, and calendars show it as the Day of Epiphany, a Greek word that means ‘appearance’.

“It’s celebrated in many cultures, especially Latin American where it is observed as the Day of the Kings or Three Kings Day,” said Roark. “Many give gifts on that day, and in some places it’s traditional to give gifts for each of the 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany, inspiring the song, 12 Days of Christmas, turtle doves and all.”

The exact origin of Old Christmas remains unclear, but Campbell County historian Joe Stephens said the particular time the holiday is observed may be the result of a refusal by early American colonists to go along with England when the British empire switched from the old Julian calendar used by the Eastern Orthodox Church to what was supposed to be a more accurate Gregorian calendar in 1752 more than two decades before the American Revolution.

“Being the unwilling subjects that they were, they did not consider the King of England to be their king or his church to be their church. Thus, the Dec. 25 date came to be known in Southern Appalachia as New Christmas and the traditional date as Old or Little Christmas,” said Stephens.

One of the most commonly observed traditions of Old Christmas prohibits the emptying of ashes from a fireplace or cooking during the period between Dec. 25 and Jan. 6

Ruth Bailey, a Well Springs resident who will be 93 on Jan. 6, said her aunt, Mary Carroll Smith, “believed in Old Christmas” and held fast to the “no emptying of ashes” rule.

“I have heard the old-timers talk about it,” said Elaine Irwin Meyer of the Museum of Appalachia at Norris.

Meyer said the story she heard most often about Old Christmas involves livestock clamoring in the barnyard just before midnight, and then “silence, as if all the animals were praying.”

Old Christmas in Appalachia harkens back to a simpler time, said Meyer.

“In my grandmother’s family, the biggest thing was to finish your chores early in the day and have a big meal,” said Meyer. “The children would hang their socks up, and they would be filled with apples, nuts and a stick of peppermint candy.”

Meyer said the first glimpse many mountain people had of a Christmas tree was in the pages of a Sears and Roebuck catalog.

Delphia Etter Winters of LaFollette said she got a blend of Christmas tradition from her parents in the years following the Great Depresssion. Her father of German heritage introduced her to Christmas trees, while her mother of Scottish descent taught her about Little Christmas, as she called it.

The children were allowed to decorate the tree with handmade ornaments. The Christmas tree was taken down and burned after Jan. 6.

Winters said her family always celebrated Christmas on Dec. 25 and again on Jan. 6. She said the observance on Jan. 6 was more to honor the farm animals, which were given treats for being “witnesses to the birth of the Christ-child.”

“At midnight, you could go out to the barnyard and all of the animals were given voice. We always tried to go out and watch it, but we could never stay awake until midnight,” said Winters.

She continues her family’s Christmas to this day.

“I never take any decorations down until after Jan. 6,” Winters said.