What is Old Christmas?
Once a year families across the world gather to celebrate the birth of Christ, remember old stories, and share family lore. At least, that’s how it was when I was a child. Each family, country, and culture has unique ways of celebrating the day. Some differences are small, like the order in which presents are opened. Some differences are drastic, like not celebrating Christmas on the same day.
The Amish, for example, have something called “Old Christmas” celebrated on January 6th. When I first learned of Old Christmas I thought little of it as this was just one more thing that the Amish did differently. Later, when life took me to Spain, I learned that the Spanish also have a holiday on January 6th. They call it “Día De Los Reyes” or “Day of the Kings.” Later, as I continued my studies, January 6th kept appearing like a ghost of Christmas past. Finally, I went to google and accidentally stepped through the wardrobe into a world of Christmas traditions that feels straight out of a fairy tale. Knowing the many ways it is celebrated simply adds to the mystic and wonder of the season. The German “Krampus” is a personal favorite, but in regards to drastic historical shifts in tradition, few outshine January 6th.
In researching the Amish and January 6th, I was first directed to a blog post published in 2009. (In internet years, that is the equivalent of finding a dusty manuscript in grandfather’s attic.) It is titled “Why do Amish celebrate ‘Old’ Christmas?” (DHGBETH, 2009). This blog hints to the 12 days of Christmas, the wise men, and a link to the Julian calendar as the roots of the Amish Old Christmas. Apparently, the writer reports, the Julian calendar was a lunar calendar and Christmas was celebrated on January 6th. However, when the Gregorian calendar was adopted Catholic Europe started celebrating Christmas on the 25th of December. Since this was a Catholic move, some groups who did not like the Catholics, including early Anabaptists, continued to celebrate on January 6th.
I can confirm the blog’s statement that the switch from the 25th to the 6th originated with the change from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. Reportedly, it was a known problem that the solstices, (celestial events that mark the seasons) were moving around on the old calendar. Thus, a new calendar was needed (Freiberg, 2000). Some places switched to Pope Gregory’s new calendar immediately while other groups took longer. For example, there was resistance from the Church of England since the calendar had been instituted by the “Anti-Christ,” (Freiberg, 2000, p. 4) While most groups gradually made the change to the new calendar over the years, the Amish, notorious for not changing, apparently kept the tradition of Christmas on January 6th. The blog does recognize the celebration of both days among the Amish based on the tendency for variance between communities, it is likely different depending on who you ask and in which community you ask it.
People speak of the Amish as being a remembrance of an era long past. While they are usually referring to the simpler lifestyle of the Amish, no electricity, cars, etc., within the Amish liturgy linger shadows of an older world. The modern world has these shadows as well. Perhaps most obvious of which is the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” There are protestant denominations that are stronger in liturgy, like the Reformed Church, and would evidently still recognize that day as Epiphany (RCA, n.d.).
The Eastern Orthodox
The above referenced peer reviewed article out of Liberty University’s online database declares Old Christmas to be on January 6th. However, the Eastern Orthodox celebrate something called Old Christmas on January 7th. The reason for this is again given as the lunar Julian Calendar (Orthodox Christmas Day, 2018). There is then a discrepancy. My favorite theory is that since the Julian Calendar is Lunar, and since they follow that calendar still, the day to celebrate Christmas actually moved on the Gregorian Calendar. For example. The Orthodox day of January 7 is only accurate from 1901 to 2100, when it will change to January 8th Gregorian (Orthodox Christmas Day, 2018). Ergo it makes sense that it would have been the 6th when the Amish manifested their stoutheartedness and thus it is still the 6th. But that is just a theory.
To further complicate matters, in Spain, a famously catholic country, January 6th is known as Dia De Los Reyes (Day of the Kings) and celebrates the coming of the three wise men. The Spanish even have, albeit a bit apocryphally, names for each king; Melkon, Gaspar, and Baltasar. They are from Persia, India, and Arabia, respectively (Informacion, 2018). On the other hand, Wiki gives the same names but says they represent the races, European, Asian, and African (Wiki, n.d.). (This being lore, I thought Wikipedia a valid source.)
However, contrary to the Amish and the Eastern Orthodox, December 25th is still hailed as Christmas day in Spain. As I understand it, the children traditionally receive presents on the Day of the Kings. But according to locals, giving gifts on Christmas day is a growing practice. It is important to emphasize that Christmas is a distinct day for the Spanish. Whereas the Amish seem to view Old Christmas as a replacement (?), the Spanish celebrate both. Notably, the Spanish do have a Santa Clause tradition - I’ve heard him referred to as Papa Noel. However, the details are sketchy. The man I saw in the department store looked more like a court jester than St. Nicolas, but one does see the American Santa Claus represented commercially and in decorations.
Celebrating the Nativity
The Christmas season is saturated in history, liturgy, and lore. To follow its path through history would be a book in itself. (Authors note: I decided to check amazon and ended up buying an e-book on German Christmas traditions). The study of Christmas history and lore helps us understand how humans develop cultural strongholds. This in turn hints to the way other belief systems and liturgies have developed. Most things that we do were developed over long periods of time to their detriment (elf on a shelf) or to their great advantage (peppermint hot chocolate). Ergo, things change over time as a normal part of human progression. Thus, thinking something is right because it has always been done that way is ridiculous. However, treasuring something because it’s always been done that way is perfectly valid.
DHGBETH. (2009, December 17). Why do Amish celebrate "Old" Christmas? Retrieved from Dutchman News: https://derdutchman.wordpress.com/2009/12/17/why-do-amish-celebrate-old-christmas/
Freiberg, M. (2000). Going Gregorian, 1582-1752: A Summary View. The Catholic Historical Review, 86(1), 1-19.
Informacion, L. (2018). De donde vienen realmente los Reyes Magos? Retrieved from La Informacion: https://www.lainformacion.com/asuntos-sociales/de-donde-vienen-realmente-los-reyes-magos_QSUfL5PARs9VgFQ4OzBZB5/
Orthodox Christmas Day. (2018). Retrieved December 28, 2018, from timeanddate.com: https://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/common/orthodox-christmas-day
RCA. (n.d.). Family Ideas for Epiphany (January 6). Retrieved December 26, 2018, from Reformed Church in America: https://www.rca.org/resources/family-ideas-epiphany-january-6
Wiki. (n.d.). Reyes Magos. Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reyes_Magos