Two Christmases? How Outer Banks carried on Old Christmas traditions

Originally published in the Raleigh News & Observer:

Here on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Christmas comes not once, but twice, each year. Not only do the folks in this once isolated coastal community celebrate Dec. 25, they celebrate Old Christmas on a day in January as well!

They do it because for years the only Christmas they’d ever known was the one they celebrated in January, and even after they began observing Dec. 25 they couldn’t bring themselves to abandon a custom that had become so much a part of their lives. So, as has been the case for quite a few years now, the people of Rodanthe find themselves each Yuletide with two Christmas Days on their hands.

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The first of Rodanthe’s two Christmases, the one that falls on Dec. 25, is to the island children the day when Santa pays his visit, and it is observed by them and their elders just as it is by their fellow North Carolinans all over the State. The Christmas tree, the gifts and the toys and goodies left by St. Nick are all in keeping with the day as it is known on the mainland.

The second, or Old Christmas, and the one that makes Rodanthe unique among all other communities in the State at Christmas, is distinctly different. In some respects this is the traditional Christmas of the islanders’ forbears from the England of centuries ago, and its roots go deep into Christmas customs of that faroff day.

There is, for instance, the islanders’ “Old Buck.” This strange make-believe bovine beast plays what is, perhaps, the key role in the entire celebration. In an imaginative sort of way, “Old Buck” is able to connect the dead past with the living present, thereby creating among the people a sense, or feeling, that their departed loved ones are momentarily among them in spirit for the day. Local folklore has it that “Old Buck” is the beast of Trent Woods, a sparse piece of nearby woodsland where he hides throughout the year, to show himself at Old Christmas only.

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