January 8, 2008

Old Christmas tradition continues in Rodanthe
With Slideshow


Tradition is hard to beat, and Old Christmas is no exception.  Few places in the world celebrate it like Rodanthe.

The term “Old Christmas” originated with a change to the Gregorian calendar by the English in 1752, which caused Christmas to fall on Dec. 25, rather than Jan. 6.  On the Outer Banks and some other areas, many people continued to honor Jan. 6.  

The celebration of Old Christmas on Hatteras Island has been documented for more than 100 years and is characterized by oyster roasts, music, and a visit by Old Buck, a mythical wild bull said to roam the forests of the island.

Over the years, Old Christmas gained a reputation as a boisterous time of fights after too much to drink. To be sure, lots of tales are true.  We’ve heard a few about people crawling out windows to avoid a fight.

But the times have changed a bit.  There’s still a bit of beer around, but the fights are fewer and farther between.  The event feels like a family reunion, with young families, great-grandparents and everything in between.  It is a wide cross-section of the community, including ministers, teachers, business owners, and average workers.  

It is fun.

The day started off with the oyster shoot in the afternoon.  We arrived a little after 2 and found things well underway. Men and women, young and old, competed for oysters, while admiring one another’s shots and passing around good wishes for the new year.  And, no, they don’t shoot oysters.  They shoot at targets to compete for the baskets of oysters.  

I peeked inside the kitchen and started to take a few pictures, since I had never seen the large chicken and pie bread dinner in production.  Lesson one:  Do not walk into a kitchen before a big dinner when some of the volunteer cooks did not arrive.

So I learned to make pie bread.  It didn’t matter that I had experience only in making regular pie crusts.  The ladies welcomed me.  Katie Gaskins prepared the dough – no measurements, mind you, and she showed me how thin to roll it and what size to cut strips.

It reminded me of Baptist church dinners I grew up with outside Richmond, and I was honored by the invitation, because this is a family affair.

I hung in for pie bread but slipped out before potato salad preparation.

During my kitchen tenure, my boyfriend brought a load of wood to Joey O’Neal to help get the roaster going for the bushels of oysters waiting for the evening.  They sampled one or two and assured us that they were an excellent batch from Swan Quarter.  

Joey and his son, Joey, cooked all of the oysters over the evening.

We went home for a bit to add some layers of clothing for the cooler evening of oyster slurping. Since the number of folks continued to grow during the afternoon, we made sure to be back soon after dinner was served.

The family-style set-up of tables is always fun.  You talk to people you may have never met before, and you catch up with folks you might not see very often.  With a belly full of pie bread and chicken, you really have to work to save room for oysters.  At $10, the dinner is a bargain.

Santa visited the younger children, bringing stockings of crayons, coloring books, and candy.  They were immediately opened and put to good use.

The band “Chicamacomico” struck up. It was loud, but it drew young and old onto the floor, including a few people who knew something about the Carolina shag.  

Outside, oysters were shoveled onto makeshift tables of plywood.  If you didn’t bring your own oyster knife, you relied on the kindness of others, which is not a safe bet when oysters are fat and salty.       

We ran into visitors from England, who assured us that there is no Old Christmas there, just Boxing Day.  They were impressed by the festivities.

Old Buck arrived a little before 9.  

“The one constant, unchanging element of Old Christmas is Old Buck, the legendary wild steer of Trent Woods, who comes up to Chicamacomico to destroy Christmas,” according to Hatteras Island historian Danny Couch.  “No one has ever seen him, although it’s common knowledge that the animal has huge, horrible horns and can roar louder than the strongest northeaster.  Buck simply commands his spirit to enter the celebration. Old Buck makes his appearance at the height of the evening’s entertainment to the wild, rowdy delight of children and adults alike.  His likeness is actually two men under a blanket, holding a pole aloft in front that resembles a steer head, complete with horns and nose ring.  He bobs his way bumping and banging through the crowd as the kids attack him.”

It takes a bit of imagination these days, since Old Buck has morphed over the years to a more zebra-like pelt. He must be led into the room, and it is pure chaos for a few minutes as everyone tries to get in a pat for the year.  I got gored but was assured that this was good luck.  

Worn out by the full day, we headed home.  The festivities continued late into the night, and, as always, a good time was had by all.

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