During the early to mid 19th-century, in some remote areas of the Great Smoky Mountains and elsewhere in rural America, Christmas might be celebrated in January, not December. Stranger still, one of the old Christmas traditions was to stay up until midnight of Christmas Eve (January 5) and go into the barn to witness the farm animals praying. According to lore (and “The Homecoming” by Earl Hamner of “The Walton’s” fame <watch HERE at minute 3), on midnight of Christmas Eve all of the animals would begin bellowing and baaing and whinnying and crying out in their animal voices in a cacophony of barnyard prayer. Some believe this tradition relates back to Jesus being born in a manger where farm animals were present.
The reason that Christmas was observed in January is related to the switch between the old “Julian calendar” and the newer “Gregorian calendar” in the 16th to 18th centuries. In days gone by, people had a much harder time keeping track of the year. Hence all those stone circles in fields, slits in castle walls, etc. The fact that moon phases are always cycling and that there are actually 365 and ¼ days in a year really complicates matters over time.
After a couple centuries the calendar named for Julius Caesar was way off and had to be corrected. Some nations and faiths began adopting the new calendar named for Pope Gregory XIII as early as 1582. Switching calendars, however, was much more radical than our biannual Daylight Saving Time changeovers. To convert to the new calendar, everyone had to set their calendars ahead from October 4 to October 15 overnight. And what if your birthday was on the 10th?
Consequently, the big “spring forward” was quite controversial. Depending on your nationality, distance from a major city, faith, and other factors, you may have decided not to change your calendar at all.
Fast forward to the Smokies in the 1800s, and there were still people who preferred celebrating Christmas according to the old Julian calendar: January 6. This was called “Old Christmas Day.” Some holiday gluttons celebrated both old and new. In fact, the date of Old Christmas is still changing (from the 5th to the 7th) because that old calendar is still adding a day every few decades or so….