Past Times

Past Times: How Outer Banks carried on Old Christmas traditions

Islanders climb aboard “Old Buck” for a good luck ride.
Islanders climb aboard “Old Buck” for a good luck ride. COURTESY OF OUTER BANKS HISTORY CENTER

Residents of North Carolina’s Outer Banks are known to celebrate Christmas twice – the traditional Christmas on Dec. 25, and a customary Old Christmas on January 6. In 1968, writer W.D. MacNaull explained the origin and traditions of the “Second” Christmas observed in the coastal community of Rodanthe.

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.

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.

But careful students of folkways and customs will tell you that Rodanthe’s “Old Buck” has its origins in Medieval England. In Cornwall, in olden times, the Christmas celebration included a beast described as a “hobbyhorse in which a man carried a piece of wood in the form of a horse’s head and neck with a device for opening and shutting the mouth with a loud snapping noise, all the while the performer being covered with a horse hide so as to resemble the curvetings and biting motions of the animal he imitated.

Whatever its origin, to the folks of Rodanthe at Old Christmas the appearance of “Old Buck” is pretty much the highlight of the celebration and it simply wouldn’t be Old Christmas without him. True enough, the creature is but a crude affair of wood and hide and a cow’s horns, but to both youngsters and oldsters alike it is the real symbol of their ancient Yuletide and one they couldn’t possibly do without.

Rodanthe’s second Christmas in January is first of all the observance of a custom far too deeply rooted among the people of the “banks” to be lightly discarded and, secondly, a ready-made excuse for relatives and friends who have moved away over the years to return for a visit with the folks they left behind. Because of this last reason, Old Christmas is not always celebrated on the exact date in January coinciding with the date of Old Christmas (the Twelfth Night), but upon the weekend nearest to it. This enables more former residents to return to the community than would be possible if, let’s say, the event took place mid-week.

The festivities that mark Old Christmas Day at Rodanthe get underway in earnest not long after nightfall. The local folks and visitors assemble at the old schoolhouse, now the community building. A prominent island citizen comes out upon the stage at an appointed time and calls for attention. With bowed head he offers up a prayer: “The Lord has blessed us and brought us safely through another year, and so we gather here to celebrate another Old Christmas of our forefathers.” The prayer is followed by the singing of carols, in which everyone joins heartily.

The singing over, the time has now come for which all of the children and most of the grownups have been waiting the past twelvemonth, the appearance of “Old Buck.” His entry, as for generations past, is made while the official “drum beater” beats out a long and spirited roll on the ancient ceremonial drum.

The strange creature, “powered” by two young islanders hidden beneath the blankets that are a part of its hide, is usually led onstage by another islander. This individual is garbed in a weird costume, including a grotesque mask, for island custom decrees that his identity must never be known.

Leaving the stage with his charge, “Old Buck’s” caretaker leads the apparition along the aisles of the community building. As the “beast” frolics up and down the aisles with much headshaking, prancing and snapping of jaws, “Buck” always manages to create near-pandemonium among the children, the womenfolk and not a few of the men jammed into the building. After several minutes of such carry-on, “Old Buck” returns once again to the rostrum to take a final bow. Finally, he disappears into the wings to, presumably, return once more to his secret hideaway deep within the tangle of vines, myrtle and yaupon that the islanders call Trent Woods. There, local tradition has it, “Old Buck” will lurk unseen throughout the coming year, to emerge no more until Old Christmas night a twelvemonth hence.

With the departure of “Old Buck,” the merrymakers sing more carols and dance. From time to time, as the evening wears on, most of the celebrants will find time to go outside the building and stuff themselves with the oysters steaming over smoky brush and driftwoood fires, for the oyster-roast has been part and parcel of Rodanthe’s Old Christmas since time immemorial.

As midnight approaches, the crowd begins to thin out. Reluctantly, the last of the celebrants to leave darken the lights in the community building and make fast its door. And so passes into the annals of another year gone by the unique Old Christmas of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The N&O Dec. 29, 1968