In my family, which hails from England and Ireland, one of our Christmas traditions was that the tree stayed up until Old Christmas Day, January 6th. We never understood why, simply that such was the rule. Gifts were opened on Christmas Day but stayed under the tree unless being played with or shown to visitors, of which there were many during that three-week period. While relatives came to our home on Boxing Day (December 26th), friends and close acquaintances knew that their invitation began after that, and on many evenings and Sundays, we’d either visit their house to see their decorations and gifts, or they’d come to our home.
Old Christmas Day, or Little Christmas as it’s known to Irish and Amish celebrants, is also called The Feast of the Epiphany by Catholics, the day to remember the wise men bringing gifts to Jesus. Christmas Day originally was celebrated on January 6th. The change came as a result of calendars and problems with them.
|Pope Gregory XIII|
The original calendar in popular use, the Roman calendar, used the phases of the moon as its basis. However, it wasn’t very accurate since they didn’t have a great understanding of our solar system at the time. So along came Julius Caesar, who agreed with astronomers of the time that the calendar should be based on our revolution around the sun. A calendar based on 365 1/4 days—the time it takes for Earth to travel around the sun one complete turn—was introduced. He divided this calendar into twelve months.
However, not everybody agreed on this new calendar, and indeed, a lot of confusion reigned in the known world because different countries followed different calendars. Plus, the Julian calendar wasn’t accurate, either. It was short by around eleven minutes. While that might not sound important, every 128 years there was an extra day.
In 1545, Pope Paul III began a project to find a solution to the problem. Almost eighty years later, using past experience and much research, astronomers and scholars calculated the true length of the solar year, reducing the new calendar by more than ten days. Due to these changes, the Spring Equinox was moved to March 21st, and the New Year on January 1st would finally standardize the beginning of the year. This new calendar was called the Gregorian calendar, but was still not universally accepted. For example, London was ahead of Paris by ten days because of the use of different calendars in the different countries. However, simply lopping eleven minutes off the solar year and changing the date wasn’t enough. Particularly because Protestant Europe wasn’t about to do anything Catholic Europe said.
In fact, it wasn’t until the mid-eighteenth century that England fully adopted the Gregorian calendar. Since England was still days ahead of the rest of Europe, to make the switch, the British were told that on September 2nd, 1751, they should call it September 14th, and forget the days in between. Many protested, believing the Papists were trying to steal days from them. Part of their protest included continuing to celebrate Christmas Day on what was now January 6th. Many rioters flooded the streets, demanding their eleven days be returned.
For many years, December 25th was called New Christmas Day and January 6th was known as Old Christmas Day. The song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” begins on the first day of Christmas, December 25th, and ends on January 6th, the twelfth day.
Thankfully, our celebration of Old Christmas Day today can be more pleasant, but it’s a note that people haven’t really changed much in 250-plus years. We will want what we want, and are willing to speak up for changes we don’t agree with.
Giveaway: Leave a comment about your family’s Christmas traditions, and I will draw randomly for a print (US only) or ebook copy of Christmas Under the Stars, a western historical novel about mysterious accidents, mistaken identities, and the promise of Christmas. Check it out here
About Christmas Under the Stars:
November 1858, Utah Territory: Edie Meredith strives to keep her temper and her tongue under control as she heads west with her brother to California. Raised in an itinerant preacher family, she promises she will never marry a man of the cloth. Tom Aiken, drover of the wagon train, longs to answer his true calling: to preach, and while he realizes not every woman would choose a preacher for a husband, he hopes to soon find his help-meet. Suspicious ‘accidents’ plague their journey. Is someone trying to keep them from reaching their destination? Or will misunderstanding and circumstances keep them apart?
Donna writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of
Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas, full-length novels, and non-fiction books. She is a member of ACFW, Writers on the Rock, SinC, Pikes Peak Writers, and CAN; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests.
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