Hoo-ray Jake and Hoo-ray John,
Breakin’ Up Christmas all night long
Way back yonder a long time ago
The old folks danced the do-si-do.
Way down yonder alongside the creek
I seen Santy Claus washin’ his feet.
Santa Claus come, done and gone,
Breakin’ Up Christmas right along.
The “Breakin’ Up Christmas” tradition is credited with originating in Northwest North Carolina and Southwest Virginia during the 1920s, though William Norman noted the event in his 1864 memoir, “A Portion of My Life.” In the days before television – even pre-electricity for many – residents gathered in homes for house parties. Out came the fiddles, banjos, dulcimers and other favorite instruments, and there’d be music and dancing until late in the evening to commemorate the 10-day period between Christmas Day and Old Christmas.
Old Christmas? Christmas in Appalachia was not always celebrated on December 25th. Whether because calendar reform in 1752 had removed 11 days, turning December 25th into January 6th, or because January 6th marked the arrival of the three wise men on the 12th day of Christmas—the Day of Epiphany (in Greek, “appearance”)—, many Appalachian people celebrated Old Christmas on January 6th.
The observance of Epiphany actually goes back farther than the observance of Christmas. It was known to have been celebrated before 194 AD, while the observance of the Nativity, in the form of Christmas, did not actually catch on until the 4th century AD.
On Old Christmas Eve, young people enjoyed raucous activities, setting bonfires and going serenading, which involved shooting guns and firecrackers as well as singing. Old Christmas Day was usually observed quietly, with church going, family meals, community Christmas trees, and stockings containing fruit, nuts, and candy.
Many mountain folk believed that on the Day of Epiphany a person should never lend anything to anybody, because the lender would never get it back. Also, they regarded the Eve of Epiphany as a night when the Holy Spirit would manifest itself upon the earth in many subtle ways. Upon that night, people believed, no matter how hard the ground was frozen, elder bushes would sprout up out of the ground.
Our ancestors believed that if a person would stay awake until almost midnight on old Christmas Eve, then sneak quietly out to a barn or a field where any cattle or sheep were kept, they could hear the animals pray. Supposedly, at the exact stroke of midnight on Old Christmas Eve, the animals would start moo-ing and baa-ing and bellowing… not in their normal way, but almost as if they were crying. This belief undoubtedly harkened back to the stable in Bethlehem, and to the animals that were present when the Christ Child was revealed to the Magi. Old Christmas was a far cry from today’s gift-centered celebration.
During the ‘Breakin up Christmas’ celebrations, party hosts moved furniture out of the house to make way for the festivities and the revelry moved from house to house. The event was said to have included one dance that resembled a cross between the Virginia Reel and a minuet. While the “Breakin’ Up Christmas” tradition waned in the days of World War II, it enjoyed a resurgence of popularity during the 1970s. As social conditions changed through the decades, the celebrations also changed — they are currently held in dance halls and civic clubs more often than in homes.