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Over a half century ago, people in the mountains of Southwest Virginia and Northwest North Carolina celebrated Christmas with house parties that included old-time string music, song and dance over a period of two weeks during the holiday season.
“Breakin’ Up Christmas” is both a name for the 12 days of partying, dancing and music-making after the holiday, and a song sung during that period.
This mountain music tradition will be celebrated on Friday, Jan. 6, with the annual Breakin’ Up Christmas Party at the historic Rex Theater in downtown Galax.
The program has been coordinated by local musicians and volunteers of the Rex for a number of years, but this is the first time it will be broadcast live on radio (WBRF 98.1 FM), as well as streamed via the internet at www.blueridgecountry98.com.
The original Breakin' Up Christmas" parties lasted the 12 days between Christmas Day and Jan. 6 — known as “Old Christmas” or Epiphany by many — and the day Jesus’ birth was celebrated until a calendar change in 1582.
The Appalachian “Breakin’ Up Christmas” tradition hails from the area that includes Grayson and Carroll counties, Galax and bordering Surry County, N.C.
Tommy Jarrell, a fiddler and Civil War veteran from Lambsburg — a posthumous 1982 National Heritage Fellowship recipient from the National Endowment for the Arts — is strongly associated with the song.
The lyrics go like this:
“Hooray Jake, hooray John, Breakin’ up Christmas all night long,
“Santa Claus come, done and gone, Breaking Up Christmas right straight along.
“Don’t you remember a long time ago, the old folks danced the doesey-doe.”
The people who learned to play “Breakin’ Up Christmas” and other old-time tunes didn’t have sheet music or lessons to go by, said Debbie Robinson, one of the event’s organizers. “They picked up the music by ear and that’s how it was passed down through the generations.”
New tunes slowly made their way into the area, often by visitors or because a community member made a trip outside of his locality, she said. “As a tune bounced back and forth over the mountains between North Carolina and Virginia, local musicians might give it a different name, add a new twist and come up with a new version.”
As for the “Breakin’ Up Christmas” tradition, “folks would go from house to house, having a dance at one house, then go off to the next one the following night. They’d clear the furniture, put huge logs on the fire and play music and dance for about a two-week period around Christmas and the New Year,” Robinson said.
The celebration around “Old Christmas” on Jan. 6 has its roots in ancient tradition. Many observe the day as the time when you’re supposed to take down your Christmas tree and decorations — even if they don’t remember why the day is significant.
We sing a carol every year about this time, “The 12 Days of Christmas,” but think little of its origin.
Old Christmas came to be when Pope Gregory XIII adjusted the calendar to match the actual seasons in 1582.
Members of Orthodox religions didn’t think even the pope should be messing around with Jesus’ birthday, and they continue to celebrate Christmas on the original day, which was around Jan. 6 or 7 in the new reckoning.
The American colonies adopted the new calendar in 1752, but not everybody in the southern Appalachians went along with that or — given the area’s isolated nature at the time — maybe they didn’t even get the word.
Old Christmas also falls on what most Christians accept as Twelfth Night or Epiphany, the feast that marks Jesus’ manifestation as the light of the world.
Tradition says that’s when the Wise Men arrived and presented their gifts to the baby Jesus — 12 days after his birth — thus the tradition of giving gifts on Old Christmas.
There is much Appalachian folklore surrounding the 12 days of Christmas. According to one tradition, the 12 days between Christmas and Epiphany are “ruling days.” The weather that occurs on each of the 12 days governs what happens during the 12 months of the new year.
Novelist Lee Smith, in “Fair and Tender Ladies,” said animals get the power of speech on Old Christmas.
Other legends say the animals lie down at midnight on Old Christmas Eve.
Several years ago, the Rex Theater’s Blue Ridge Backroads radio show volunteers and organizers decided to revive the “Breakin’ Up Christmas” tradition by offering an informal gathering of musicians, dancers and fans of the music to join together to celebrate as a way of saying thanks to all those who support the weekly live music show throughout the year.
The Rex Theater, on East Grayson Street in downtown Galax, will open its doors at 6 p.m. on Jan. 6. Admission is free and those attending are asked to bring a snack dish to share.
Musicians and dancers are encouraged to participate in informal jam sessions. There will be impromptu band performances on the Rex stage, as well.