By Stephen Smoot
On the twelfth day of Christmas, my truelove gave something to me. Whatever it was, she presented it on Jan. 6.
The modern world focuses on Dec. 25 as the day to celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ. Individuals and families celebrate their faith while children young and old playfully reenact the Santa Claus rituals of leaving out cookies and milk. The recognized holiday season lasts through the modern Saturnalia of New Year’s Eve. By New Year’s Day, many have boxed up the decorations, taken down the tree, and moved on.
Outside of the commercial holiday calendar, however, Christians in a board spectrum of cultures still see Jan. 6 as one of the most important of religious days, but for quite different reasons.
On the Christian calendar, Jan. 6 is called Epiphany, which means in Greek “appearance.” On this day, the Magi came from the East to visit Christ and deliver gifts. Many cultures have their own version of Epiphany. The Eastern Orthodox Church, which started in Byzantine Constantinople and is still dominant in Russia and Eastern Europe, considers Jan. 6 as the baptismal date of Christ.
That date coincides with a completely unrelated historical phenomenon. Under Julius Caesar, experts created the calendar that the Western world used. Rome had relied on a calendar that grew more inaccurate and unwieldy over time. When he took over the failing Roman Republic, Caesar ordered the creation of a new calendar based on the Egyptian solar cycle model. Though much more accurate, it overcalculated by 11 minutes per year. After 1500 years, this put the calendar out of step by 10 days.
Pope Gregory XIII commissioned church astronomers to correct the error. They created the Gregorian calendar which is used across most of the world today, and Catholic Europe started using it in the 1580s. At this time, religious wars and divisions raged across Europe. German Protestants, adherents to the Church of England, Eastern Orthodox, and others who opposed the Roman Catholic Church refused to adopt the calendar at first. The British Empire did not adopt it until 1752, Russia not until 1917.
One of the best explanations of the changes over the years came from Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. Under the name Richard Saunders, he wrote:
“Yet is the Gregorian Year far from being perfect, for we have shewn, that, in four Centuries, the Julian Year gains three Days, one Hour, twenty Minutes: But it is only the three Days are kept out in the Gregorian Year; so that here is still an Excess of one Hour, twenty Minutes, in four Centuries; which in 72 Centuries will amount to a whole Day.”
In his understated style of advocacy, Franklin, who, ironically, was born on Jan. 6, points out that though still inaccurate, the Gregorian’s mistakes are spread more broadly over time. He also explained the history of the errors of the old Roman calendar as well.
Through the 1700s, American colonists spread slowly into the back country. An outpost, such as the future Pendleton County, lay months from the centers of settlement and authority. Many of those who came to such rugged and remote places in the mid-1700s had no access to publications such as Poor Richard’s Almanac or the latest Acts of Parliament. Most cared little of what the British government did, so long as it left them alone in peace and helped to defend them when war from the French and their Indian allies came.
Adoption of the new calendar progressed slowly on the frontier and many continued to celebrate Christmas as it was set in the Julian calendar. Over time, even as people reconciled to the new model, they continued celebrating on Jan. 6. Many called it “Old Christmas,” others referred to it as “Little Christmas” or even “Green Christmas.” As late as the 1930s, however, several Appalachian areas and the Armenian Church still regarded Jan. 6 as the true date to celebrate the birth of Jesus. According to David Hackett Fischer in his book “Albion’s Seed,” some North Carolina communities considered Dec. 25 a “man-made” Christmas holiday.
Fischer also described the customs that followed settlers as they moved from the Scottish lowlands and north English highlands to the Appalachians. Old Christmas celebrations in mountain communities could be surprisingly ribald, closer to the conduct of old Saturnalia or modern New Year’s Eve. “There was a feast even in the poorest houses and bonfires at night with much gunplay and fireworks,” Fischer wrote. He also described the curious process of “stanging,” which was “a rough and sometimes violent ceremony in which a victim was hoisted on a long pole and forced to dangle until he brought himself free.” Merry Christmas, indeed!
Modern Old Christmas and Epiphany traditions have left behind the days of dangling selected individuals from poles. In West Virginia and elsewhere across the Appalachians more recently, Old Christmas since the 1800s is seen as the more serious and contemplative holiday compared to Dec. 25. Children received fruit and nuts in stockings or “treat totes” instead of presents. An entire mythology emerged around the day, including beliefs that elder bushes sprouted on Old Christmas but did not grow again until spring, that animals prayed to the Holy Spirit on the day, and that it was bad luck to loan anything out. Serenading and caroling were also at one time popular pastimes on Old Christmas.
Armenian Christian churches celebrate January 6 as the date of the baptizing of Christ by John the Baptist. Before the Divine Liturgy, Armenian Christians re-enact the sacrament in a ritual called “Jurorhnek,” or “blessing of the waters.” First, they dip a cross into a container of water inside the church. Next, blessed oil from a dove shaped container is poured into the water, symbolizing the presence of the Holy Spirit. Finally, the congregation shares the water, which reminds all that participation in the acts of Christ remain essential for eternal life as described in the Bible.
The Amish, whose ancestors were dissenting Anabaptists driven from their German homes in the religious wars, fast until noon, then eat one large meal later in the day. Amish do not work or conduct business on Old Christmas.
Many Spanish cultures celebrate Jan. 6 as Three Kings’ Day, centering the holiday around festivities and gift giving. Each item given by the Magi to Christ symbolizes some part of the divine nature of Jesus. Children wait anxiously for the Magi on this day as they did Santa Claus 12 days prior. They leave shoes by the door and grass for the hungry camels that bring the Magi and their gifts. Spain sees massive parades all over their country in honor of the holiday.
Regardless of the reason, many cultures around the world extend the Christmas season into the New Year with unique traditions dating back centuries.