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MUSEUM MUSINGS: Early Ozarks settlers celebrated ‘Old’ Christmas

Written by David Holsted, published in the Harrison Daily Times on December 24, 2020

Merry New Christmas!

What, you’re probably wondering. What’s with the “New” Christmas? Well, in the Ozarks (and the Appalachians, from where many of the early Ozarks settlers came), there was an “Old” Christmas.

For much of the 19th Century, and in some areas, even into the 20th Century, Ozarks hillfolk celebrated Christmas on January 6. The reason, it was said, was because the original English and Scotch immigrants brought with them the January 6 tradition. As one Ozarks historian said, those early immigrants “sort of missed the memo for the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar that England and Scotland made in 1752.”

Many Ozarkers still abided by the old Julian calendar. Some people even today celebrate “Old Christmas” on January 6.

The eminent Ozarks historian Vance Randolph said, “A great many of the old-timers call December 25 ‘New Christmas’ in order to distinguish it from ‘Old Christmas,’ which falls on January 6.

Old-timer told Randolph that elderberry always sprouts on the eve of Old Christmas even if the ground is frozen hard. One man told him that bees in a hive always buzz very loudly at midnight on the eve of Old Christmas.

“If several bee gums are set close together, the ‘Old Christmas hum’ can be heard some distance away. This shows that January 6, not December 25, is the real Christmas.”

January 6 is sometimes called “Green Christmas” or the “Twelfth Night.”

The old belief was that at exactly midnight on January 5, the eve of Old Christmas, cattle would kneel down and bellow in honor of the birth of Jesus. Some even said that the animals would be given the gift of speech so that they could pray aloud in English.

Other animals also were given the power of speech on Old Christmas. Randolph wrote, “If you go into the woods and listen, you may hear the sound of animals praying to God.”

Skepticism remained in some parts.

One old-timer told Randolph that when he was a boy he watched repeatedly to see his father’s oxen kneel but was always disappointed. His parents told him, however, that the presence of a human observer broke the spell, and that cattle must always salute the Savior in private.

“But I just drawed a idy right thar,’ he said, “that they warn’t nothin’ to it, nohow.”

Another belief was that there were two daybreaks instead of one on Old Christmas. Boys born on Old Christmas were supposed to be very lucky in raising cattle. Some even said that those Old Christmas children could actually “talk the cow brute’s language.”

An old woman claimed that the family’s well had a charm placed on it the night the cows talked.

“I don’t know what the charm is that this old woman referred to,” Randolph wrote, “but there are people in Arkansas today who say that the water in certain wells turns into wine at midnight on January 5.”

Here’s wishing you a very merry Old and New Christmas!