The OTHER 12 Days of Christmas
December 15, 2011 12:34 PM   Subscribe

In the mountains of North Carolina an old tradition lives on: Breakin Up Christmas.

In the old days, with winter being a slow time of year, the people just kept on celebrating from December 25 until January 6, taking turns hosting music, dancing, and feasting at one another’s homes. The furniture was moved outside, to make room for the musicians and dancers.

Please enjoy the sounds of a old-timey Breakin Up Christmas party with Tommy Jarrell, the toast, of Toast, NC.

Breakin Up Christmas

John Brown's Dream

Sally Anne

Sugar Hill

Cotton Eyed Joe

Cripple Creek

Goin Down The Road Feelin Bad

Suzy Anna Gal

I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground
posted by timsteil (18 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
You know, with the blended/extended/scattered families so common these days, I think a lot of people celebrate along the same line.

I know so many people that have Christmas with the kids, then travel over a state to have Christmas with the in-laws (and cousins), then another trip around New Years to have "Christmas" with the parents.

There is generally less fiddlin' and probably not quite as much moonshine, but the spirit is similar.
posted by madajb at 12:53 PM on December 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just wait until Fox News hears about this rural front of the War on Christmas. Bill O'Reilly will have a field day with these banjo jihadis.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:59 PM on December 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


From what I understand, this all started off because of the switch from the Julian, to Gregorian calenday by Great Britain (and hence its colonies) in 1752. The month of Septermeber lost 14 days overnight, which put Xmas on Dec 25th, instead of the traditional Day of Ephiphany on January 6. The old timers didn trust the new calendar, and kept to January, the younger folks went with Dec 25, so there was this big gap between the two that they needed something to fill the time with.
posted by timsteil at 1:06 PM on December 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

Not to be confused with this.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 1:06 PM on December 15, 2011

I really thought this was about North Carolinans dumping their girl/boyfriends on Christmas.

I'm kind of bummed.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 1:06 PM on December 15, 2011

This is fantastic. Thanks, timsteil. I'm enjoying these immensely.

In a completely different vein, here's a glitch version of "I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground" by ANBB (Alva Noto / Blixa Bargeld) which I'm partial to.
posted by koeselitz at 1:19 PM on December 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Interesting post. My family is from Southwest Virginia, which according to the links is supposed to be one of the centers for this celebration. In my quest for family history, I had never heard anyone in my family say a word about celebrating Christmas like this. Thus, I've just sent off an email to members of said family to see if they recall such. It wouldn't be the first time I learn about an Appalachian tradition that withered away after my folks moved out of the mountains.

I do know that my mother's father's family celebrated Twelfth Night...which might have been something akin to this form of celebration.
posted by Atreides at 1:36 PM on December 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

And there's the whole "back log" thing about the slaves being on holiday after Christmas until the back log of the fire burned out. Enterprising folks would sink a big log in the swamp in January so the back log wouldn't burn out for weeks at the end of the year.
posted by scruss at 1:55 PM on December 15, 2011

Great post - listening to these tunes is making me want to get back to playing the old-time stuff! I've been digging into 19th century minstrel style banjo of late, and while there's a small but vibrant online community and occasional gatherings of early banjo enthusiasts, it's a slightly more formal style than an old-time jam where all you need to know for about 90% of the tunes are your I-IV-V chords. Sitting on a porch and playing those old tunes is pretty much as fun as it looks and sounds.

The paradox of the recordings of all those great banjo and fiddle players from the early 20th century is that while they preserved and documented a musical style that might otherwise have faded away, they also set them in stone. Instead of the folk tradition where one generation learns mouth to ear while putting its own slight spin on things and writing its own songs, those snapshots in time are now The Authentic Way™ to play the Authentic Canon™ of old-time songs. I drifted away from banjohangout after reading one too many "index vs middle finger" and "definition of clawhammer vs frailing" debates.
posted by usonian at 2:02 PM on December 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

usonian, I think you must have been hanging out with the wrong crowd of old time musicians. There are many current players who treat this music lovingly and respectfully but as part of a living (and therefore changing, and personally modifiable) tradition. I am including, in this, some of the most awesome and "famous" (in this small world of old-time music) players, as well as some of us not-so-great ones.
posted by sheldman at 3:43 PM on December 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

(but I will agree with you, usonian, that online old-time music discussion has too often been particularly full of a certain "canonical" uptight approach to the tradition.)
posted by sheldman at 3:47 PM on December 15, 2011

The Twelve Days of Christmas
posted by fshgrl at 4:22 PM on December 15, 2011

Argh. I meant to say these are the original 12 Days....
posted by fshgrl at 4:24 PM on December 15, 2011


I kind of came up with this tradition too, not from an Appalachian background, but from an Illinois flatland, taught by an older hippie brother who embraced this music, and gave me a fiddle, and Highwoods Stringband and Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers records. While all my friends were trying to be this brand new guy Eddie Van Halen, I was in my room with back issues of Pickin Magazine, trying to play like this pretty old blind guy, Riley Puckett.

Aside from playing solid old-timey guitar, and stand-up bass, I learned the fiddle, and banjo, and mandolin, and grew to love everything about this very powerful and important folkway. I went to every festival I could, and sat at the feet of people very much like Tommy Jarrell, guys who were propped up by their grandchildren, who spat their chew into an old Folgers can between their feet, and always had a mason jar full of bald ass whisky with them, that they shared with me as a 15 year old kid, just like they did that third elusive part of Forked Deer.

As far as breakin up Christmas, sometimes it was just my brother and me, sitting around the basement woodstove smoking pot, sometimes it was a house party with a full on string band and dancers and food, and people of every generation appreciating what we were doing, and when the latter came, it was like a calling, a solemn thing, that we would play till the sun came up, until our fingers bled.

You could take a simple thing like Sally Anne, and play it for a half an hour, and no one would stop dancing. Someone could just call another tune, and we would switch to it on the next four, and play that for another half hour. After a point it was a pure adrenelin trance, a train that refused to stop rolling. Right about the point where you thought your hands would fall off, somebody way north of 80 years old would let out a loud blood curdling whoop, and it was like being born again, a shower and fresh shirt all in one

It seemed to be everything good and pure about America, a place where everyone came together. An old fiddler would give you some crap about your long hair, and hand you a jug as a 12 year old walked up knowing two chords on something, but was welcome to play the hell out of them as long as he lasted.

Not sure why I posted this, maybe the inevitable sadness that induces restrospect around Xmastime, but it sure feels good in my heart, and makes me want to start playing the old timey stuff again too. I have a fiddle in my closet that has been too long gathering dust, and just maybe, with a little ironing out of the wolf notes, it can move some feet again.

What has moved me most I guess, was watching that first Tommy Jarrell clip of Breakin Up Christmas. Watch starting at :53, when the guitar player just busts out with some lyrics that are 150 years old if they re a day, then look for the frail old lady in the pinkish/reddish skirt, wearing a straw hat in the doorway.

She starts clapping her hands, and right after the line. “the old folks danced the do-si-do”, she comes out just bouncing and smiling. Oh how I wish the camera would have stayed on her a bit longer.
posted by timsteil at 10:39 PM on December 15, 2011 [10 favorites]

I have a friend who is generally a good person, except for the fact that he considers folk music deathly boring. While tastes are tastes, and I'm not looking to convert him, I may very well print out timsteil's comment to give to him to explain that, no, there is nothing boring about this music, at all.

(What I am trying to say is that you very nearly made me cry, and thank you for putting the feel of a dance, of well-loved music that's been played for generations, into words.)
posted by kalimac at 2:54 AM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thank you for the wonderful comment, Timsteil.

I spoke briefly with my mother last night, and while there wasn't necessarily a time of music and dancing, it was one she said where everyone, the uncles and aunts, the cousins and nephews, would flow into their house over that time span. I hope to hear more back from my older relatives on the matter. My grandmother's family was quite musical, she played the guitar (something she never told me until the last few years of her life), and a family story involves the accidental delivery of a package to the house one day.

The package was for a neighbor, but I suppose, had a distinctive shape to it. My grandmother's father opened it, discovered a fiddle, and promptly set to playing it. After probably a number of songs and declaring it to be a fine instrument, he carefully placed it back in the package, wrapped it up, and carried it over to the neighbor.
posted by Atreides at 6:55 AM on December 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

As another follow up...unfortunately, the oldest member of one side of the tree just suffered a heart attack. It may be a while until I hear from him, though he represents the side of the family that has more English/Scotch-Irish bloodlines, which might be significant with this tradition.

My previous post involved a family line that was a good mix of Scotch-Irish/English/and German.

My great-uncle from another line, which is much more German, and settled Washington County in the 1700s, reported that by at least the 1920s and thereon, the family did not celebrate "Breakin Up Christmas." Instead, Christmas was celebrated by a spruce tree from one of the fields of the farm (groomed in advance) hauled in on Christmas Eve, decorated with popcorn, gifts given out on Christmas day, and if it wasn't Sunday, the tree was then hauled out and things returned to normal. This great-uncle generally received the same thing every Christmas, a new pair of boots, a new pocket knife, a new set of Sunday clothes, and perhaps some fruit. As for celebrating Christmas, he noted in his e-mail to me (not bad for an 80+ year old), that there was always something needing to be done on the farm, and thus, Christmas celebration didn't quite get much time.
posted by Atreides at 2:48 PM on December 19, 2011

usonian, I think you must have been hanging out with the wrong crowd of old time musicians.
I didn't mean to come across as quite so disenchanted, but you're right in a sense, sheldman. The internet is a wonderful place for gathering raw information, but sometimes a lousy place for getting a sense of what things are like in the real world.

Part of the problem in my neck of the woods is that I haven't found a circle of old-time musicians at all; I have no doubt that they're around, but they don't tend to make themselves known online and I've never gotten active enough to have learned about sessions and musicians through the grapevine... old-time music around here is a bit of a "scene" that you have to work yourself into, and I've got too many other irons in the fire to immerse myself.

But I do believe I'll try to get out to The People's Pint for the open session next Wednesday; I've been away for way too long.
posted by usonian at 8:40 AM on December 26, 2011

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