According to old Appalachian tradition, you don’t have to be named Doolittle to hear the animals. You just have to be in the right place at the right time. The right place would be a field or perhaps a barnyard. The right time would be Old Christmas Eve. And Old Christmas Eve would be Jan. 5.
At midnight on Old Christmas Eve the animals of the fields and barnyards are said to begin lowing, bellowing, baaing or making whatever sound is common to them — but in a peculiar way, as if they were praying.
According to tradition, our Appalachian ancestors celebrated Old Christmas on the Epiphany — the day Christ was revealed to the Magi, in the stable in Bethlehem, in the presence of the animals.
Another Old Christmas tradition continues on the Outer Banks. Rodanthe in Dare County is said to have the largest Old Christmas party in the Old Home State.
While the date (Jan. 6) of Rodanthe’s Old Christmas certainly coincides with the Epiphany, the limited sleuthing I did points to logistics, communication (or lack of) and the independent streak of early colonists as the primary factors for the January 6 date.
The old Julian calendar was replaced throughout Catholic Europe in the late 1500s by the Gregorian calendar. Protestant countries like England did not follow suit – the Pope was not their boss. However by the middle 1700s England finally came around. By this time, they were 11 days behind the rest of Europe and the Julian calendar.
Well, to quote that famous Carolina philosopher James Taylor, “... the thing about time is, time isn’t really real...” So, England just tossed 11 days, moving Christmas back to Dec, 25.
Now remember, this was before Al Gore invented the Internet, even before NASA launched all those communication satellites, so the word didn’t reach the colonies right away and Christmas kept coming around Jan. 6. By the time word reached the colonies, most were fed up with England telling them what to do and just as England had snubbed the Pope back in the 1500s, many colonists decided that January 6 was a fine day for Christmas.
Rodanthe certainly celebrates December 25 but they just keep the celebration going and on the Saturday, nearest Jan. 6, they celebrate Old Christmas.
Animals play an integral role in Rodanthe’s Old Christmas too, but in a little different way. According to island legend, Old Buck was a wild bull that made life scary for villagers till a hunter did him in. Now Old Buck’s ghost joins the celebration each year.
No matter your religion, no matter if you celebrate Old Christmas “new” Christmas or both, Christmas is a celebration of love, compassion and Grace. If there is a thing called Grace it certainly includes the animals and all of this wonderful creation.
Whether it is midnight or mid day, if you can find a quite place to sit and watch and listen, you can, indeed, hear the animals pray.