The annual “Appalachian Christmas” this Sunday afternoon at the Lutheran Church of the Atonement on Oakwoods Road in Wilkesboro is understandably a popular local holiday season event.
Starting Sunday at 3:15 p.m. this year, it will again feature some of the best local acoustic musicians on everything from banjo, guitar and fiddle to bagpipe, harp and piano.
There’s no admission charge, but attendees are asked to bring non-perishable food items as donations for the Brushy Mountain Baptist Association’s Wilkes Ministry of h.o.p.e.
Appalachian Christmas connects to both religious and secular traditions.
It celebrates Epiphany, which for many Christian churches starts Jan. 6 (12th day after Christmas) and extends until Ash Wednesday. Roman Catholics and some other Christians observe Epiphany as a single day.
Epiphany is an ancient Christian feast day commemorating the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ. For Western Christianity, it primarily focuses on the visit of the wise men to the baby Jesus.
Other Christian traditions observe Epiphany to commemorate when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and started to teach people about God, thus becoming the “light of the world.”
Appalachian Christmas also recognizes “Old Christmas,” which resulted from Pope Gregory XIII adjusting the calendar implemented by Julius Caesar to better match the actual seasons in 1582. In the Gregorian calendar, Christmas Day was changed from Jan. 6 or 7 to Dec. 25.
Members of Orthodox and some other Christian faiths continued to recognize Jan. 6 or 7 as the day Jesus was born because they didn’t think anyone, including the pope, should mess around with Jesus’ birthday.
The American colonies adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, but not everybody in the colonies concurred or learned about this so some continued to observe Jan. 6 as Christmas Day.
People in remote areas of the southern Appalachians, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and elsewhere, are among those who continued to observe Jan. 6 as Christmas Day for a long time. This later date came to be known as “Old Christmas.”
There is a German tradition of dressing up like wise men and going from house to house on Jan. 6, singing popular German carols such as “Kling, Glockchen” (“Ring, Little Bells”) and “O Tannenbaum” (“O, Christmas Tree.”)
Many also observed the 12th day quietly by going to church, having simple family meals and reading from the Bible.
The holiday carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” is rooted in the period Dec. 25 to Jan. 6. Appalachian folklore includes a belief that the 12 days between Christmas and Epiphany are “ruling days,” such that the weather on each of the 12 days governs what happens during the 12 months of the new year.
Some older Wilkes County residents remember or were told about these 12 days once being a time when people went around visiting neighbors and kin and sharing food and drink, and sometimes making music and dancing.
Especially festive traditions developed for the period Dec. 25 to Jan. 6 in some parts of northwestern North Carolina (including northern Surry County) and southwest Virginia (including Grayson County). In Surry and Grayson, this came to be known as “Breaking Up Christmas.”
The late Tommy Jarrell, who was a popular old-time fiddle player and banjo picker from the Round Peak section of Surry County, was known for playing a song called “Breaking Up Christmas.”
This song is performed at the Lutheran Church of the Atonement’s Appalachian Christmas.
The Surry Arts Council began sponsoring Breaking Up Christmas dances in Mount Airy several years ago. This year’s dance is from 7-9 p.m. Saturday at the Earle Theater on North Main Street in Mount Airy, featuring the New Smoky Mountain Boys. Tickets are $10 each.
Holiday traditions such as these that extend beyond Dec. 25 are opportunities for reaching out to others and fellowship in the true spirit of Christmas.