Old Christmas Day

While most of us have taken down our decorations for another year, many Newfoundlanders still celebrate Old Christmas Day, or Epiphany, for some. This traditions goes back over 300 years and is meant to enjoy the whole Christmas season, not just a couple of days in December.

Pope Gregory XIII

When Pope Gregory XIII established the Gregorian calendar in 1582, he ushered in an era in which the people of Europe disagreed on what day it was. As a result, they celebrated Christmas on different days. Before the Gregorian reform Europe had adhered to the Julian calendar, which was a full ten days behind the newly instituted Gregorian calendar. Some nations and churches refused to adopt the Gregorian reforms. In these lands people continued to celebrate Christmas on December 25, but did so according to the Julian calendar. Their celebrations fell on Januaryaccording to the new Gregorian calendar. In past eras the English sometimes referred to January 5 or 6 as “Old Christmas Day.”

At the time of its creation, the ten-day gap between the new Gregorian calendar and the old Julian calendar createdsituation in which the peoples of Europe celebrated Christmas on different days. By the time England adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, the gap had crept up to eleven days. With the stroke of a pen English legislators ordered that September 2, 1752, be followed by September 14, 1752. Many ordinary people defied this change, fearful that it would adversely affect their livelihood in some way. Although many writers have reported that resistance to the new calendar took the form of riots and slogans, such as “Give us back our eleven days,” recent research has failed to find convincing evidence of these events. Instead, it appears that people resisted the change in less dramatic, more personal ways. Some refused to celebrate the feast days on the new Gregorian schedule and clung instead to the old dates. For example, under the Gregorian reform the day that had been December 25 instantly became January 5. Many called January 5 “Old Christmas Day” or Christmas Day “Old Style.” Correspondingly, December 25 was known as Christmas Day “New Style.” By the nineteenth century Old Christmas Day had crept a day further away from the Gregorian calendar, falling on January 6, Epiphany. As the Julian calendar continued to drift away from the Gregorian calendar throughout the twentieth century, Old Christmas Day shifted yet another day forward in the Gregorian calendar, falling on January 7.

Mummering, the practice of disguising oneself and visiting from house to house, is carried on through the Christmas season. Known in Britain as “mumming,” the name “mummering” long ago became usual in Newfoundland. It usually does not start until St Stephen’s Day (known nowadays as Boxing Day, December 26th). Mummering is sometimes said to be a non-religious custom that should be carried on neither on Christmas Day itself, nor on Sundays during the season. Nonetheless, this is not a universal rule and one can find mummers out visiting even on Christmas Day.  Mummering continues throughout the twelve days of Christmas up to Old Christmas Day.  Groups of mummers would go throughout the village, visiting people while dressed in disguises.  If the homeowner could guess who the mummers were, they didn’t have to give them anything.  If they couldn’t guess, they would have to give them something to eat and drink.

Giving hospitality to strangers is nothing unheard of in any Newfoundland house.  One could link this to the Christian upbringing of many Newfounlanders.  There is the story of angels visiting Abraham in Genesis and he kills his best calf for them and offers food and drink.  Also the verse in Hebrews 13:2 about not hesitating to show brotherly love as you may be entertaining angels in disguise.

While nowadays you may not get as many guests at your door as before, this Old Christmas Day, if you do have someone come knocking, invite them in, sit them down, and enjoy their company.  Enjoy this article from 1989 about the tradition of Old Christmas Day.

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