Old Christmas in Rodanthe

We thought we had celebrated Christmas. We hadn’t.

Oh, sure, December 25 had descended upon the world amidst the glow of Christmas lights, under the well-worn toes of Christmas stockings, beneath the Christmas star and Christmas angels atop a Christmas tree.

It was a time to give and receive, hope and believe. It was a silent night. A holy night. A time for peace on earth and goodwill to men.

But in the little coastal town of Rodanthe, perched back among the dunes on the wind-battered edge of Hatteras Island, December 25 was just another day. Nothing new. Nothing special. On the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Christmas would have to wait.

Christmas always does.

Rodanthe was just as religious as the next town, even more religious than most. But those who fished its waters and were bent by the cold Atlantic winds at their backs did not trust the Church, not the teachings of Pope Gregory anyway.

Why should they?

The church, with the flick of a wrist and the flourish of a pen, had stolen eleven of its good, honest, hard-working days, and Rodanthe, quite frankly, did not have eleven days to give back to anybody, no matter how pious he might be.

It seems that back in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII decided to shorten the official year by eleven minutes and fifteen seconds as a correction to the inaccurate Julian calendar of his time. Being on a roll and in the midst of change, he also deleted ten days to bring his new calendar in sync with the solar cycle.

It was law, he said.

And all the Catholic countries immediately complied and shortened their year by eleven days as well. It wasn’t, however, until 1752 that Great Britain and the rulers within the American colonies got around to making the switch to the Gregorian calendar.

Eleven days with the snap of a finger were gone. Lost. Thrown away. Dumped and trashed. It was official. The new calendar became the law of the land.

But nobody remembered to tell the populace who walked the streets of Rodanthe and the sailed the waters beyond the Outer Banks.  Those folks lived an isolated life and preferred it that way. They were strong and independent and resourceful, and never feared loneliness. It had been a good neighbor for a long time.

Hatteras would always be considered a wilderness of sand, sea oats, and wild ponies. Until the late 1930s, there would no electricity and no refrigeration, just kerosene and candles.

Back in the 1750s, communication with the outside world was non-existent.  The word about a calendar change did not reach the Outer Banks for decades. More than one generation would come and go and still be left in the dark. Nobody told a soul in Rodanthe. The outside world did not realize Rodanthe existed.

And when those on Hatteras finally did hear they had lost eleven good days, they got mad, then defiant. They said to hell with the Pope. To hell with the church. To hell with the new calendar.

Rodanthe never took a vote. Rodanthe didn’t need to. Rodanthe chose to keep its eleven days.

Christmas may fall on December 25 throughout the rest of the country. In Rodanthe, however, Old Christmas does not properly arrive until January 6 or January 7 or on the Saturday closest to Epiphany, commemorating the Wise Men’s visit to the infant Jesus.  For some, who cling to ages-old traditions, Old Christmas has even been tied to the Twelfth night, the final night of the Christmas season.

We thought we had celebrated Christmas. We even watched an old year change to a New One. Then we found ourselves in Rodanthe on January 6, and we celebrated Christmas all over again as though it was the first time. On Hatteras island, it was.

If you show up, don’t expect turkey and dressing. Giblet gravy is out of the question.

On the Outer Banks, you’ll find oyster roasts.

Don’t expect Santa Claus.

On the Outer Banks, everyone awaits “Old Buck,” the re-incarnation of a mythical wild bull that once terrorized the townspeople in medieval England until a hunter shot him down. When those Englishmen came to a new land, they packed up their traditions, including Old Buck, and carried them all by boat to the cape of Hatteras.

Drums beat. Music throbs to the rhythm of a pounding Atlantic surf. Fires glow hot back within the dunes. Oysters roast upon the coals. There are even rumors of strong drink. And someone in town always dons the costume of Old Buck, running wild and usually amuck, as he leads a parade of mirth and merriment toward the evening tides of a January shoreline.

The night may not be silent or particularly holy. But it’s alive with the laughter of children. There is a lot of peace and goodwill to go around. And it is Christmas. The people of Rodanthe would have it no other way. God bless them everyone.

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  • Anonymous

    Fantastic. Thanks so much. Love the history of the outer Banks.

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