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'Old Christmas' January 6th

04 Dec 09 - 10:54 PM (#2781043)
Subject: 'Old Christmas' January 6th

Does anyone know the details about when the 12 days were added to the calendar (by whose authority?), which started the old folk-ways custom of celebrating Christmas on January 6th? I heard about this, partly because of the Christmas song "The Cherry Tree Carol", where the Christ, in Mary's womb, declares that "the sixth day of January my birtday will be," and from hearing Jean Ritchie talk about an old lady (her grandmother?) celebrating "Old Christmas." Is this also where the "Twelve Days of Christmas" comes from?

04 Dec 09 - 11:01 PM (#2781045)
Subject: RE: 'Old Christmas' January 6th
From: GUEST,999

Read this.

05 Dec 09 - 12:06 AM (#2781064)
Subject: RE: 'Old Christmas' January 6th
From: Janie

Good article, Guest 999.

Here are some additional links regarding "Old Christmas."

Old Christmas


I recall (vaguely) stories told by my grandparents and great grandparents about drunk elders, bonfires and the firing of guns into the air on "Old Christmas." (Both sides of my family had crossed the pond and migrated to the southern Appalachians before the Revolutionary War -Welch, Germanic, Irish, Scots, and Scotch-Irish.)

05 Dec 09 - 09:33 AM (#2781263)
Subject: RE: 'Old Christmas' January 6th
From: GUEST,BanjoRay

There's a superb old Appalachian fiddle tune from the late French Carpenter of West Virginia called Old Christmas Morning.

05 Dec 09 - 11:14 AM (#2781321)
Subject: RE: 'Old Christmas' January 6th
From: Arkie

Back in the 1960s there was an article in a Virgina newspaper about Old Christmas still being celebrated on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in the Rodanthe community. Supposedly when England changed from the Julian to Gregorian calendar, the folks isolated on the Outer Banks were not told of the change so they continued to celebrate Christmas as they had. Whether or not that is true, as they say here in Arkansas,"It makes a good story".

05 Dec 09 - 11:29 AM (#2781327)
Subject: RE: 'Old Christmas' January 6th
From: katlaughing

I love youtube! BanjoRay, thanks for the mention of the old tune. You all can hear a young woman play it RIGHT HERE.

05 Dec 09 - 11:36 AM (#2781335)
Subject: RE: 'Old Christmas' January 6th
From: MGM·Lion

Remember last verse of Please To See The King, that odd carol sung by Martin Carthy & Steeleye Span , supposedly about the Wren, king of birds - tho there are several different & competing exegeses:

Old Xmas is past, Twelfth Tide comes the last
So we bid you adieu, Great joy to the New [ie presumably Happy New Year]

Twelfth Night [aka Epiphany, the 12th Day of Xmas of the song where the Lords come a-leaping or the drummers drumming, depending on yr version], has also been identified with Roman Bacchanalia, when everything was reversed, slaves were masters for a day &c — hence, some think, the title of Shax's comedy, 'Twelfth Night, or What You Will', in which everyone is disguised, nothing is as it appears, nobody [becoz of existence of identical twins] is who they appear to be — as Feste the Fool exclaims sarcastically at one point, but we, the audience, know, more accurately than he thinks, "Nothing that is so, is so!"

05 Dec 09 - 04:47 PM (#2781564)
Subject: RE: 'Old Christmas' January 6th
From: Gweltas

In Co Kerry, Ireland, where I grew up, January 6th, the feast of the Epiphany, is also called "Little Christmas", or "The Women's Christmas". My late mother used to solemnly place the little statuettes of the Three Wise Kings in the "crib" (nativity set) on the eve of January 6th, as this was the night that the Magi were traditionally supposed to have arrived at the stable in Bethlehem, and unlike in a lot of other local households, these statuettes were not permitted to appear in OUR nativity display PRIOR to that date !!

"The Women's Christmas" was in effect a kind of "Mother's Day" and it was the day when the mother in the house was celebrated and thanked by the rest of her family for all her hard work in providing us with the best of everything over the Christmas period, and all the cooking and other household chores on that day were done by her family, so that she became a lady of leisure and had a day of rest and pampering. Little inexpensive gifts were also exchanged on that date as well.....hence the reference to "Little Christmas"

Here in Cornwall, where I now live, "Twelfth Night" is celebrated in Launceston every year with a fine informal music and singing session in Launceston, organised by Rob Strike.

05 Dec 09 - 05:43 PM (#2781607)
Subject: RE: 'Old Christmas' January 6th
From: Mysha

Hi JB3,

You're quite close to the mark. Counter to popular believe, Old Christmas has nothing to do with Epiphany, except that by shear coincidence they fall more or less on the same date.

Long, long time ago ... I can still remember how, music used to make me smile. Erm.

Long, long time ago, the Romans had a calender which was more or less moon-based, in which they introduced a leap-month every now and then to keep the calender year more or less the same as the solar year. For various reasons, this calender was no longer running synchronous with the actual seasons. In fact, it was several months ahead; the start of the calender year, which was the beginning of March, fell long before the solar start of the year, the spring time equinox.

Julius Ceasar introduced, in 46/45 BC, a calender that had months slightly longer than a moon, so a single leap-day, at the end of a year, the end of February, would be enough to correct the year. At the introduction he also needed to correct the accumulated mistake, by introducing in the last year old style two extra months. However, to avoid having a year of fourteen months, he declared the year would from now on start in January, instead of March.

Now, this system is not perfect, and initially its implementation wasn't perfect either, but things were not all that bad, so in 325 the Council of Nicaea saw no particular problem in defining the date of Easter as: The first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox, even though at the time the calender was already slightly behind. However, a small error that kept accumulating, meant that around 1582 pope Gregorius XIII was beginning to feel Easter was celebrated on the wrong day. By his time, the calender was 10 days behind, compared to 325! He introduced the Gregorian Calender, which only differed in the timing of the leap-day: There would no longer be leap-days in century years, except if that year could be divided by 400. This would keep Easter in its place for millennia, once he correct the calender back to that of 325. So, he ordered that one time only, every one should skip 10 days.

Will we get to the point? Is the pope Catholic? Yes, he is, but not all countries are. So while some countries followed the instruction immediately, other, Protestant, countries were more hesitant. For example, it wasn't until 1701 that we in Friesland changed the calender. By then the error had grown to 11 days. When we did change it, we had a slight contractual problem: All contracts started on the First of May, and lasted a year. Nobody was going to pay a year's wages for only 354 days' work, so the full year had to be served till the old First of May, and then the new contracts could be entered into, which would again last a year, and so on. Thus came into existence the day of "Old May", 11 days after the new First of May.

In the British Empire lived even more Protestants that didn't want anything to do with all of this, so it wasn't until 1752 that reluctantly, Great Britain reformed its calender by skipping 11 days. But many Protestants agreed with the Pope, in that they believed the Christian feasts should be observed on the correct day! The difference was, to them the right days were those indicated by the calender as it was in 1751. Thus, similar to the Frisian case, days like Old Halloween and Old Christmas came into existence.

Now, curiously, by counting 11 days you'll find Old Christmas should be the day before Epiphany, and in the carol mentioned above this is indeed the case. Today, however, it's celebrated on Epiphany, or similarly. I've never seen an explanation for that. The only thing I can think of is that by 1800 still the old, Julian, calender was followed by those observing the Old Christmas, and thus the 11 day difference became a 12 day difference. This may seem a bit unlikely on the surface, but it would have occurred within the same generation, and in fact to this day Eastern Orthodox churches use the Julian calender. As this generation might have lived in the knowledge that they would have to take notice in 1800, this doesn't seem an impossible scenario to me.

In the nineteenth century, Christmas, which had been in decline, grew in popularity again, on the 25th of December, but the other date is still known as Old Christmas, and for those who observe it, it is still associated with older Christmas traditions, some of which are in fact even older Mid-winter traditions. By coincidence, the days of Christmas and Epiphany are twelve days apart, which is why Old Christmas is often considered to be the same day as Epiphany. At least one alternative custom exists, where Old Christmas is now celebrated on the Saturday closest to its real date. In this way, the attempts to keep Old Christmas on the same date have now given Old Christmas a date that varies yearly. History plays strange tricks sometimes.


06 Dec 09 - 10:16 AM (#2782083)
Subject: RE: 'Old Christmas' January 6th
From: Tug the Cox

The twelve days fall roughly at the same time of the `10 day Roman revels called Saturnalia.

06 Dec 09 - 01:17 PM (#2782192)
Subject: RE: 'Old Christmas' January 6th
From: Cats

In our village here in Cornwall we wassail on or before Old 12th night, never afterwards.

06 Dec 09 - 01:35 PM (#2782205)
Subject: RE: 'Old Christmas' January 6th
From: autoharper

Dear Mysha,

Thanks so much for explaining this!

-Adam Miller

07 Dec 09 - 06:59 AM (#2782746)
Subject: RE: 'Old Christmas' January 6th
From: Marje

Cats, when you say "Old Twelfth Night" do you mean mid-January? That's what happens here in Devon - the wassailing of appple trees etc takes place around the 17th January, whereas in Sussex it's on Old Christmas (i.e. new Twelfth Night).


07 Dec 09 - 07:38 AM (#2782779)
Subject: RE: 'Old Christmas' January 6th
From: MGM·Lion

Excellent, summary Mysha, thank you.

Tug, you remind me that in my above post about 12th Night [5 dec 1136 am], I said Bacchanalia when of course I meant Saturnalia. When I finish typing this I shall retire to stand in the corner for an hour with my hands on my head!

BTW, my birthday is 12 May, which, it has more than once been pointed out to me, is Old May Day. I have frequently roved out thereon, but have alas failed to find that many milkmaids rolling, or even dabbling, in the dew to keep themselves fair!

07 Dec 09 - 09:40 AM (#2782866)
Subject: RE: 'Old Christmas' January 6th
From: GUEST,Henryp

The provisions of the Calendar (New Style) Act 1750, implemented in 1752, altered the official British dating method to the Gregorian calendar with the start of the year on January 1. This change is still the cause of much confusion.

The Russian Orthodox Church keeps to the Julian calendar. Because of leap days, it now celebrates Christmas on January 7th, thirteen days after the Western Christmas.

Lady Day was the first day of the year in the British Empire until 1752. Lady Day, 25 March, was also the English quarter day when annual rents were due. When the calendar changed in 1752, to allow leases to run for a full year, they were extended beyond 25 March.

Some events were celebrated 11 days later, and 12 days later after 1800 when the Gregorian calendar had no leap day. As a consequence of the change, the British tax year still starts on 'Old' Lady Day, 6 April, 12 days after Lady Day. Old Christmas Day is celebrated on 6 January, 12 days after Christmas Day, 25 December. By chance, it falls on Twelfth Night.

There is the familiar story that people believed that their lives were being shortened, and protested, "Give us back our eleven days!" There was confusion about birthdays too. People born between 3rd and 13th September missed their proper birthday in 1752!

The majority of early Americans held on to the dates that they had always used. George Washington was born when Britain and her colonies still used the Julian calendar, so contemporary records give his date of birth as February 11, 1731. He updated his birthday from the 11 February (Old Style) to the Gregorian 22 February (New Style). George Washington's Birthday is now celebrated as a federal holiday on the third Monday in February.

07 Dec 09 - 09:45 AM (#2782870)
Subject: RE: 'Old Christmas' January 6th
From: GUEST,leeneia

My gang has a new tradition of having a party and playing music relating to the Three Kings on the afternoon of Jan 1st. It's not the right date, but it's a date we all have off. It's a great excuse to get out the hand drums and play music in minor keys.

It started one silent Jan 1 when I asked myself, "Why do we have this day off?"

None of us go to parties on Dec 31st, so nobody's hung over. None of us care about football games. We don't watch parades on TV. Nobody has young kids, and nobody's exhausted from foolishly overdoing Dec 25th. It was a silent, dull day, so I decided to do something with it.

We call it National Pointless Day.

07 Dec 09 - 12:44 PM (#2783013)
Subject: RE: 'Old Christmas' January 6th
From: Mysha


No, I didn't forget about the Twelve Days of Christmas; I just needed a solid date first:

Of course, if Old Christmas and Epiphany fall on the same date, you can't tell whether the Twelve Days count the days between the two dates of Christmas or between Christmas and Epiphany. However, the concept of the twelve days already appears in In Those Twelve Days, published in 1625. As that's before Great Britain accepted the new calender, there was no Old Christmas at that time. And to be absolutely certain: Even countries that did use the Gregorian calender couldn't have had Twelve Days between the two dates of Christmas at the time, as in the 17th century the error was only 10 days. So, the Twelve Days of Christmas definitely represent the span of days from Christmas to Epiphany.

The song In Those Twelve Days, BTW, is the actual song counting One Christ, Two Testaments, and so on. Those that are trying to convert every Internet user to the belief that this can be read in "... My True Love Gave to Me ..." are looking at the wrong lyrics.

Leeneia, I usually go visit the people I didn't see the night before, but I can understand the sentiment. Well, In Those Twelve Days would be up to Eight Beatitudes by that day, if you need to characterise the day. Then again, in some areas the First of January is the first day the Sternsinger are active. These "Star singers" are groups of three singers, (today) children dressed as the three kings following a star they carry on a stick, going from door to door singing Three Kings' songs, and other songs of the season, for which they are rewarded with sweets etc..So, you could make it Star Singers Day.

Then: Some of you may have noticed I did not mention the outrage in Great Britain about the eleven lost days. There's a simple reason for that: There's no proof that there was any.

And finally, since we've now passed the earliest of the celebrations, Saint Nicholas Day, I'd like to wish the readers of this thread a festive season.


07 Dec 09 - 12:54 PM (#2783017)
Subject: RE: 'Old Christmas' January 6th
From: MGM·Lion

Then: Some of you may have noticed I did not mention the outrage in Great Britain about the eleven lost days. There's a simple reason for that: There's no proof that there was any.>>>

No proof of 'give us back our 11 days' — who needs proof?: have you never heard of the sacred principle of "No verro ma ben trovato"?

07 Dec 09 - 04:47 PM (#2783218)
Subject: RE: 'Old Christmas' January 6th
From: Mysha


No, I had never heard of it. But I also don't think the idea was well found/imagined; I've seen too many unfounded claims that the British must have been idiots at the time, unable to comprehend that time still ran its course.

On the other hand, you're a wise man to go a-Maying on Old May, as on New May, at least around here, the weather is not yet warm enough. I didn't know the version where the they were rolling in the dew, though. Does seem to make a difference.


08 Dec 09 - 01:22 PM (#2783889)
Subject: RE: 'Old Christmas' January 6th
From: GUEST,Guest JB3

Here's what I have for my introduction for "The Cherry Tree Carol."

"In 1582, Pope Gregorius the 13th added 11 days to the calendar, because it had gotten out of alignment with the seasons. In 1752, England adopted this calendar. Some of the peasants refused to accept that the date of Christmas could be changed by the government, and so still celebrated it on the old date, January 6. Thus, it came to be known as "Old Christmas." It shows up in some older traditional songs, such as "The Wife of Usher's Well" and this one."

My thanks to all who posted. Mudcat is often an educational experience!

08 Dec 09 - 01:40 PM (#2783914)
Subject: RE: 'Old Christmas' January 6th
From: MGM·Lion

Mysha, FYI, the "Rolling in the Dew" version was collected by Ken Stubbs (I think - or possibly Mervyn Plunkett) from the great George Maynard of Sussex in the 1950s.

08 Dec 09 - 01:40 PM (#2783916)
Subject: RE: 'Old Christmas' January 6th
From: Little Robyn

So in 1752, the English calendar went from 2nd September to 14th September and no-one noticed?

08 Dec 09 - 02:18 PM (#2783939)
Subject: RE: 'Old Christmas' January 6th
From: GUEST,Henryp

Everyone with a birthday between 3 and 13 September noticed!

As the change was set out in the Calendar (New Style) Act of 1750, they had plenty of warning.

1752 was a strange year. It began on 25 March and ended on 31 December. The following day, 1 January, was the first day of 1753.

10 Dec 09 - 01:48 PM (#2785503)
Subject: RE: 'Old Christmas' January 6th
From: Mysha


I've now looked at the versions of the Cherry Tree Carols that have the unborn Jesus prophesy his day of birth, as I didn't know that verse. Before, I might have thought that the date referred to Epiphany which, in much earlier time, was a celebration of the birth of Christ, but lost that function to another possible date, that we now known as Christmas.

However, to my delight I encountered both
- On the sixth day of January
- On the fifth day of January
as the date.
That suggests that it is indeed about Old Christmas, which initially was was on the 5th, and is now on the 6th. I guess that supports as well my explanation that in 1800 Old Christmas was shifted, compared to the Georgian Calender.

But it goes further: Before 1752, that birthday would not have been in January at all. It would have been
- On the twenty-fifth of December, my birthday shall be
Except, we don't seem to have that version.

Let's speculate: If there had been such an older version, it could have existed much longer than the 48 years of the Fifth of January version, yet we don't have the former while we apparently do have the latter. The version that survived from the Coventry Mysteries, which were banned at the end of the sixteenth century, doesn't have this birth prophecy. Other variations of the Cherry Tree Carols, even longer ones, usually don't include this part either. Plus, in this part of the carol, the rhyme scheme is often broken (CHERRY TREE CAROL in the DT).

Now, what is the purpose of this verse? It's not really about the cherry tree any more. Instead, we have Christ himself tell us what the date of his birth was.

It's speculation, of course, but it doesn't seem all that unlikely that the part about the date of Christ's birth was inserted after 1752, exactly because of the calender shift: The author(s) have Christ himself tell us that the correct date is Old Christmas.