Twelfth Night and “Old Christmas Morning”

“Three great wonders fell on this day/ A Star led kings where an Infant lay,/ Water made wine in Galilee,/ and Christ baptized in Jordan.”  From the song “Now to conclude our Christmas Mirth” or “The Kilmore Carol” (from the same collection as “The Wexford Carol”)

Ah, the confusion that ensues when you try to squeeze 33 years of a person’s life into the space between December 24 and late March – late April. January 6 on the current western calendar has three feasts stacked onto it, one of which tends to overshadow the others. By the Orthodox Calendar, and the Old Western Julian calendar, January 6 is when Christmas is supposed to happen. For Western Christians, January 6th is the 12th Night of Christmas, Epiphany, the baptism of Jesus, and the Marriage at Cana. Yes, He was busy. When I was 7-8 years old, I could NOT wrap my mind around how someone was supposed to have all that happen on one day, and especially not how Jesus could age 33 years in three months. The concept of the liturgical year had not sunk in too well.


For those in England who considered the shift to the new Gregorian calendar in 1752* to be a Popish Plot, January 6 remained Christmas, eventually called Old Christmas. Supposedly the Glastonbury thorn tree, which grew from Joseph of Arimathea’s staff, bloomed on Jan 6th. And in parts of Appalachia, as Roy Helton’s poem describes, it was thought that spirits walked on Old Christmas:

Old Christmas Morning

“Where you coming from, Lomey Carter,
So airly over the snow?
And what’s them pretties you got in your hand,
And where you aiming to go?

“Step in, Honey: Old Christmas morning
I ain’t got nothing much;
Maybe a bite of sweetness and corn bread,
A little ham meat and such,

“But come in, Honey! Sally Anne Barton’s
Hungering after your face.
Wait till I light my candle up:
Set down! There’s your old place.

Now where you been so airly this morning?”
“Graveyard, Sally Anne.
Up by the trace in the salt lick meadows
Where Taulbe kilt my man.”

“Taulbe ain’t to home this morning . . .
I can’t scratch up a light:
Dampness gets on the heads of the matches;
But I’ll blow up the embers bright.”

“Needn’t trouble. I won’t be stopping:
Going a long ways still.”
“You didn’t see nothing, Lomey Carter,
Up on the graveyard hill?”

“What should I see there, Sally Anne Barton?”
“Well, sperits do walk last night.
There were an elder bush a-blooming
While the moon still give some light.”

“Yes, elder bushes, they bloom, Old Christmas,
And critters kneel down in their straw.
Anything else up in the graveyard?
One thing more I saw:

I saw my man with his head all bleeding
Where Taulbe’s shot went through.”
” What did he say?” ” He stooped and kissed me.”
“What did he say to you?”

“Said, Lord Jesus forguv your Taulbe;
But he told me another word;
He said it soft when he stooped and kissed me.
That were the last I heard.”

“Taulbe ain’t to home this morning.”
“I know that, Sally Anne,
For I kilt him, coming down through the meadow
Where Taulbe kilt my man.

“I met him upon the meadow trace
When the moon were fainting fast,
And I had my dead man’s rifle gun
And kilt him as he come past.”

“But I heard two shots.” “‘Twas his was second:
He shot me ‘fore be died:
You’ll find us at daybreak, Sally Anne Barton:
I’m laying there dead at his side.”


*The British government also moved New Year to January 1 from April 5. It was confusing for a while.


4 thoughts on “Twelfth Night and “Old Christmas Morning”

    • Yes. The song “The Hills of Shiloh” has the same feeling, and could use some pipes, for all that it is set in a different time.

  1. On the twelfth day of Christmas, fate gave to me, dead batteries in my lighted wreath.
    Eleven electric books,
    Ten tenors singing,
    Nine nuns a knitting,
    Eight eardrums bursting,
    Seven swarms a swarming,
    Six geeks a LARPing,
    Five dragon wings,
    Four pollsters polling,
    Three Baen book bundles,
    Two new tablets,
    And one ring to rule them all.

    (OK, the topmost really occurred, as fate would have it. The rest is dramatic license. I don’t have to apply to the government for a dramatic license, do I?)

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