Text and Photos by Lou Ann Homan

It is dark and chilly in the cottage when the alarm clock goes off. It is still vacation and I want to decline this invitation for early rising, but then I remember that today is the Christmas bird count. I put the coffee on and eat a bowl of cereal sitting near
the hearth to gather enough heat for the day.

I wear layer upon layer of warm clothes, pack a lunch from the leftover Christmas ham, put my movie star sunglasses in my pocket along with a candy bar. Last of all I put on two pair of socks and my Ocracoke commercial fisherman boots. With my camera slung over my shoulder I head out in the early morning dawn. Rudy Austin’s boat will leave promptly at 7:45, and I don’t want to be late.

A small number of folks have already gathered carrying supplies for the day:  binoculars, small birding telescopes, bird
books, notebooks, bottles of water, and lunches placed in tidy Eddie Bauer knapsacks. I have no binoculars, no telescope, and my lunch is in a plastic bag. Nevertheless, I am cheery and ready for this bird count. I have counted birds in Indiana
for the Christmas count many times. When the boys were young at the farm we used to divide it up in parcels and I would send them out with pencils and paper. Now, today, I shall do the counting of the birds far out to sea.

Rudy starts the engine of his small craft and we huddle in the bright morning sunlight under the spell of the salty spray. Within twenty minutes the small historic island of Portsmouth comes into view. I have only been on this island once before, in the middle of the summer full of heat and mosquitoes. It is so different today in the middle of winter. It is delightful…cool, refreshing and so quiet. Portsmouth used to be a bustling sea village with a population of 685 in 1860. During the Civil War many of the folks left for the mainland and did not return. As years went by time took its toll with hurricanes and other economic problems that usually consume a small village. The last person moved off the island in 1971. Today it is owned by the National Park Service as part of Cape Lookout National Seashore. Others would just call it a ghost island.

Welcome Sign in Portsmouth Village:

We divide up into groups of birders. I decide to make my own group and bid them farewell. Besides without binoculars……

I abandon the birds for a day of history. I walk from historic house to house peeking in windows, looking at cisterns, opening gates. My walk takes me through marshes and clumps of trees, and at every turn of my walk there is the bluest of blue Pamlico Sound. I peek in the old post office, the U.S. Life-Saving Service Station, the Dixon and Bragg homes. The Methodist church is decorated with wreaths and the door is open. It is cool and dim inside, but complete with pews, an organ, and gas lanterns. There never was running water or electricity in this magical place.

Portsmouth Island Life Saving Station:
USLSS

Portsmouth Island Methodist Church:
Portsmouth Methodist Church

I see a small sign that signals the graves of two sailors down a long pathway strewn with juniper trees and white pines. The wind whistles as I find the old graves. Both men were captains, and died in their 30s. I sit in the dappled sun and shadow and read the inscription for William Hilzey who died October 4, 1821:

Far from my native land
My spirit wings its flight
To dwell at God’s right hand
With angels fair and bright

Portsmouth Island Graves:

Portsmouth Island Tombstone:
Portsmouth Grave

I pull out my ham sandwich to eat while I sit at Captain Hilzey’s grave. Just as I reach for my candy bar a small meadowlark sings sweetly overhead.

I photograph, nap in the warm sunshine, and walk for miles.

Portsmouth Island Path:
Portsmouth Island Path

As the sun crawls across the sky I realize Rudy will be by to pick us up. I find my way back to the dock and see him waiting. The real birders begin to show up. I am curious about their findings. I make a list:  pelicans, great black back gulls, herring gulls, ring billed gulls, piping plovers, sanderlings, dunlins, reddish egret, merlins, kestrels, and a tri-colored heron. “How did you do?” they ask me.

“Oh,” I reply, “I saw a meadowlark.”

I smile as we climb down into the boat and head back to Ocracoke. It has been a great day for birding.

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Ocracoke Christmases in the twenty-first century are a combination of traditional and modern elements.

Each season sees an increase in lighted decorations.  Some folks, especially down the Bank Road, go all out with colored lights mounted on fences, wrapped around trees, lining driveways, and outlining roofs.

Commercially grown trees are now imported and sold at the Variety Store.  Santa Claus comes to visit at a children’s holiday party at the Community Center, in the local grocery store, and even at the Methodist & Assembly of God churches.  Christmas carols are played in the few stores and shops that are open this time of year.

Years ago, of course, there was no electricity on the island.  A family here and there might put a candle in the front window, but other than that and maybe a hand-made wreath decorating a porch or two there was little outdoors to remind folks of the upcoming holiday.

The Homer & Aliph Howard Home, with locally made cedar wreath, 2004:
House

Most islanders would put up and decorate a local cedar, one they cut wherever they found an appropriately shaped and sized tree.  And wherever they knew the landowner would not object.

Times were often hard, and money scarce.  Local general merchandise stores would stock toys and other gifts for Christmas giving, but generally children were fortunate to receive even one significant toy — maybe a doll or a store-bought ball.

My father remembered hanging up a stocking one Christmas Eve when he was a young boy, and discovering the next morning a fresh orange down in the toe.  He was so delighted with his one Christmas present from Santa that he played with it for days, rolling it back and forth on the floor with his brothers and sisters.  Eventually he cut it up and savored the juicy fruit, a rare treat on the island nearly a hundred years ago.


The United States, along with other predominantly Protestant countries, was slow in adopting the calendar reforms proposed by Pope Gregory in 1582.  In fact Great Britain and the American colonies continued to follow the older Julian calendar for nearly 200 more years, not adopting the Gregorian calendar until 1752.

Many communities and individuals refused to acknowledge the reforms even then, although 11 days had been eliminated by the British Parliament in order to realign the old calendar with the solar year.

The “Old Style” reckoning continued in practice in many places along the Outer Banks, particularly in the Hatteras Island village of Rodanthe, where Old Christmas is still celebrated with a community pot luck and the late-night appearance of “Old Buck,” a carryover from old England.

Old Christmas now falls on January 07 (on the Gregorian calendar) because the Julian year is 11 minutes and 14 seconds longer than the actual solar year, a difference that increases the gap year after year and now accounts for a13 day discrepancy between the two calendars.

On Ocracoke the last native folks to keep Old Christmas were members of the Styron family.  It has been more than fifty years since they refused to acknowledge the modern Christmas, but even today the Frum-Lovejoy family celebrates both holidays on the island.  Nowadays the January date is recognized by them as a celebration of the visit of the Magi.

Some islanders have added an even more ancient mid-winter festival to our holiday activities.  The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, occurs because of the tilt of our planet’s axis.  In the winter the earth is tilted away from the sun, causing the sun to rise later in the morning, remain closer to the horizon, and set earlier in the evening.

Ancient cultures, unaware of the cause of the changing seasons, waited anxiously as the days grew shorter, then rejoiced as they realized that yet again the sun began to climb higher in the sky.  The solstice had passed, and spring, with it’s longer days and warmer weather, would greet the tribe once again.

Perhaps it is because Ocracoke remains closely connected with the weather and the seasons that we are keenly aware of natural cycles.

So nowadays, Ocracoke will have Christmas programs at the local churches, a live nativity scene in front of the Methodist church, a wassail party at the Preservation museum, visits from Santa Claus, pot lucks and mid-winter parties (especially the community-wide get-together at Jimmy’s Garage on December 11 where hundreds of islanders will gather to celebrate, eat, drink, dance, and be merry), as well as gatherings of family and friends to celebrate their religious heritage and the cycle of the natural world.

From all of us at Village Craftsmen we extend our warmest wishes to you for the merriest and happiest December holiday, whether Christmas, Chanukah, or Winter Solstice; and for peace in the New Year.

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Happy Holidays to all of our friends!

Ocracoke Lighthouse in a Winter Snow, 2002
Ocracoke Lighthouse Snow

As the depth of winter envelopes us we often come together with family and friends to pass through this season of long nights with meaningful rituals.

On Ocracoke, as elsewhere, many folks decorate their homes with lights and greens.

Ocracoke Christmas Decorations
Sue O'Niel's House

The Ocracoke Preservation Society hosted its annual Tree Lighting & Wassail Party on Friday, December 13.  The term “wassail” comes from the Old Norse language meaning “to be well or healthy.”  Today it refers to a traditional English toast to someone’s health, as well as to a hot drink made with cider, spices, and sugar.  Wassail is traditionally served in a large punch bowl during the Christmas season.  Although “wassail” can refer to riotous drinking and revelry, Ocracoke Preservation Society (OPS) normally hosts a rather mild gathering.

On Saturday, December 14, OPS also sponsored the second annual Historic District House Tour.  Eight homes were represented and over two hundred residents and visitors walked, biked, or drove through the village for an opportunity to view some of Ocracoke’s historic structures.

Later that evening, Jimmy & Linda Jackson and Jamie Jackson opened up their garage for another community Christmas party & pot luck dinner. Several hundred residents were there to share food, drink, stories, music and dance.

Tables filled with food line the garage
Party

Paula visits with David as he readies his fiddle
David and Paula

A friend makes a special guest appearance
Santa

Several of us also gathered on December 22 for our second annual solstice pot luck dinner.

As we now know, of course, the earth is actually nearer the sun in January than it is in June — by three million miles.

The seasons of our year, therefore, are caused not  by the proximity of the earth to the sun, but by the 23.5º tilt of the earth’s axis. The angle of the earth’s rays to the surface of the earth varies based on how far the surface is tilted toward or away from the sun. 

At 8:14 pm EST, December 22, 2002, the northern hemisphere of the earth was tilted furthest away from the perpendicular angle.  This is the winter solstice — the first day of winter, when the sun appears lowest in the sky and night time hours are maximum.  The tilt also causes the seasons to be reversed in the southern hemisphere.

We continued last year’s tradition of crowning Ocracoke’s Monarch of the Winter Solstice.  Last year we followed a medieval tradition and baked a bean in a holiday cake.  Pat Tweedie, mother of Molasses Creek’s fiddler Dave, found the bean in her dessert and was crowned Queen in 2001.  This year we drew lots and Blanche Howard Jolliff was honored with a throne, a staff, a royal robe and a star-studded crown.

Blanche, Queen of the Solstice, 2002
Solstice Queen

In other news, the Ocracoke Assembly of God church held their annual Christmas program on Sunday, December 22.  The Methodist church hosted a live nativity on the church lawn this holiday, and conducted a traditional Christmas eve candlelight service.  Christmas caroling, again this year, was a joint venture of the Methodist and Assembly churches.  Caroling was on December 20.

Of course, the days will now be gradually lengthening, the sun will be rising higher and higher into the sky each day, and within a few months we will be looking for the first robins and the early signs of new growth.

All of us at Village Craftsmen join me in wishing you and yours the happiest of wintertime holidays and the very best in the coming new year.

Hoping to see you again soon,

Philip, Dallie, Jude, Amy, Mary and Leon

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