Old Christmas in Rodanthe

 In Back In The Day, Holiday

In the days of yore, Old Christmas on the Outer Banks was an imaginative, playful custom observed enthusiastically by the entire community on northern Hatteras island. More accurately, the annual gathering the first week in January was infamous far and wide for its raucous games and drunken free-for-alls. Over time, the traditional celebration of Rodanthe’s Old Christmas continues, but the actual event, held at the community center on the Saturday closest to the Epiphany, is now considerably tamer than its bawdy notoriety earned from years ago.  The century-old ritual is believed to have its origins in the Gregorian calendar that Great Britain adopted in 1752, resulting in Christmas day moving from January 6 to December 25. As legend has it, by the time Outer Bankers learned of the change, they decided to keep their January celebration.

Serving up oysters for the hungry crowd, 1972. Photo courtesy Outer Banks History Center.

Serving up oysters for the hungry crowd, 1972. Photo courtesy Outer Banks History Center.

Michael Halminski, a professional photographer who lives in Waves, has attended Old Christmas many years since moving to the island in the mid-1970s. “They had a reputation for having these brawls, and actually in my first year or two here, that was an occurrence,” he said. “I remember one year the cops came and they were busting people. People have been intimidated by that reputation.” Drinking would start in the afternoon, Halminski recalled, which could be a little unnerving during the oyster shoot – a contest where participants fire a shotgun at a target. However, the “ruffian” element did not bother him as he watched the old-timers having a great time on the dance floor, or the young-uns squealing when Ol’ Buck burst into the room at the end of the night. The appearance of the fearsome wild bull, “Ol’ Buck” is one of the highlights of the celebration. According to legend, the bull had made the rounds with every cow on the island and menaced local farmers. Although he was finally shot and killed, his spirit is said to linger in the woods and marshlands near Rodanthe. Now one of the men in the community dons a masked costume with horns to continue the tradition.

Halminski elaborated in his blog on his website:
“This goes on for hours and everyone, young and old alike, has a great time,” he wrote. “There’s oyster shucking, reminiscing, and a little drinking, not necessarily in that order. In the meantime, some of the best cooks in town are preparing a homemade supper in the kitchen. Stewed chicken with pie-bread is the traditional favorite. About the time the oyster shoot ends, supper is ready, a band arrives and the merriment continues on into the evening.”

“The people have calmed down a lot,” said Joey O’Neal, a native islander. “When I was a kid, they used to have skits and put people on stage.” O’Neal said that in recent years, he brings about 30 bushels of oysters to roast during the event. In past years, he would need about 50 bushels. Although fewer people attend and many old-timers are gone, there are a lot more tourists now who come with their families and are welcomed to share the fun with the community.

“The younger folks are stepping up and keeping it going,” Halminski said. “The Outer Banks, I guess, has become a lot more civilized.” ♦  

Writer, Catherine Kozak is a full-time free-lance writer who has been covering the Outer Banks since 1995. She lives in Nags Head; when she wants to mingle with unspoiled nature and old-time Outer Bankers, she heads south to Hatteras and Ocracoke islands.  Photos courtesy Outer Banks History Center, Aycock Brown, and David Stick collections.

Catherine Kozak
Author: Catherine Kozak

Catherine Kozak has worked as a writer and reporter on the Outer Banks since 1995. She lives in Nags Head and enjoys running in the woods with her dog, Rosie.

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