There would appear to be two distinct camps when it comes to Christmas. On one side, there are those who greet the advent of the holiday season—ever reaching its jingly little tendrils closer to Thanksgiving—with a furrowed brow and a grumble, replacing one, now two, now three months of punctuation with a haughty humbug. Then there’s the other camp: those who revel in the season, welcoming its arrival (or the promise of its arrival—or the promise of the promise of its arrival) with the giddy enthusiasm of very young children or especially excitable small house pets. The latter of these camps would do well to visit North Carolina’s Outer Banks around the end of December, for here they’ll find that Christmas comes not once a year, but twice.
The tradition of doubling up on Yuletide cheer dates back hundreds of years, the serendipitous result of poor communication and contumacious coastal spirit. In 1752, England adopted the Gregorian Calendar, officially shaving eleven days, fifteen seconds, and the traditional date of Christmas from the year. Eighteenth-century communication technology being as it was, news of the adjustment failed to reach the isolated islands of the Carolina’s Outer Banks in anything close to a timely manner, and, unaware of any change, the resident colonists blithely continued celebrating Christmas on the traditional date–now January 9.
By the time news of the modified calendar reached folks in the Outer Banks, they had not only been celebrating Christmas twelve days “late” for decades, they’d also developed enough of their trademark independence to meet the news with a categorical “hrumph.” The old date had worked perfectly well for them in the past. It would continue to suit them for the future.
While the allure of New Christmas—sparkly, reindeered, and catchily-soundtracked—eventually won over the Outer Banks, Old Christmas, complete with its own quirky traditions, still retains its place of honor in the holiday hierarchy. Children across the islands may hang their stockings on December 24, but the real fun doesn’t come tiptoeing down the chimney in a fluffy red suit; it comes barging in through the front doors all a’snort.
Every year on Old Christmas Eve, the islanders gather and wait in breathless anticipation for Old Buck, the spirit of a particularly virile old bull that—legend has it—once ran amuck on the lady-cows of the islands until a heroic farmer shot him down. Today Old Buck’s ghost is said to spend 364 days a year roaming among the myrtle and vines of Trent Woods, but on January 5, the saucy bovine makes his way to town, reincarnated as a lumpy, wooden, blanket-covered and cow-skull-topped apparition that prances and snorts through the halls of community centers across the Outer Banks before disappearing again.
Like any good Southern tradition, Old Christmas is more than just a circled date on the calendar; it’s a social event. After Old Buck’s galumphed his way back into the great-bull-beyond, there’s plenty of good food, good company, and good old-fashioned Christmas “spirit” to pass around. There’s the traditional Holiday Oyster Shoot, candy “billin” for the youngsters, and bubbly-hot pots of chicken stew topped with “pie bread,” all followed by a party with enough fife playing, drum banging, and rug-cutting to—or so the stories say—make the buttons of men’s drawers pop right off. Certainly more than enough fun to satisfy even the most voracious of holiday appetites.