Tonight is “Breakin Up Christmas” at our house. This is an Appalachian tradition that celebrates the time between Christmas and January 6 (Old Christmas) or the Twelve Days of Christmas.
The song associated with this time of year has the following lyrics:
“Hooray Jake, hooray 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,
Breaking up Christmas right along.
The tune most likely was composed by Preston ‘Pet’ McKinney, a fiddler and Civil War veteran from Lambsburg, VA.
There are lots of folklore connected with these 12 days:
• Called “ruling days,” the weather that occurs on each of the 12 days predicts the weather for each month of the coming year.
• Old Christmas, Twelfth Night, Feast of the Three Kings (January 6th) is the time when animals are given the power of speech. 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. 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.
• On the Day of Epiphany a person should never lend anything to anybody because the lender would never get it back.
• The Holy Spirit would manifest itself on the eve of Epiphany in subtle ways.
People would go from house to house, having a dance, potluck, story telling and in general enjoying each other’s company. Furniture would be moved to make room for the guests, dancing and music. The night before Old Christmas (January 5) bonfires and firecrackers would be set, while January 6 would be celebrated with church, family meals, community Christmas trees, and stockings containing fruits, nuts and candy.
While the tradition of “Breakin’ Up Christmas” died back after WWII, it experience a new resurgence in the 1970s and today many of these celebrations are held in dance halls and civic clubs.
Ways to celebrate Breakin’ Up Christmas
• Read the poem Old Christmas From Old Christmas and Other Kentucky Tales by William Aspenwall 1917.
• Watch legendary fiddler Tommy Jarrell play the tune Breakin’ Up Christmas
• Host a potluck supper and/or bonfire