January 8, 2008
Old Christmas tradition continues in Rodanthe
By AMBERLY DYER
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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
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
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
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
We ran into visitors from England, who assured us that there is no Old
Christmas there, just Boxing Day. They were impressed by the
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
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
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