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:

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.


Winter Greetings from Ocracoke Island!

As you might imagine, Ocracoke is quiet this time of year.  The winter holidays are behind us, most island businesses are closed for the season, and folks are enjoying several months of rest and relaxation.

This is not to say that nothing is going on, however.  Several winter storms have come and gone.  There has been some overwash on NC Highway 12 from time to time, but the road (repaired after Hurricane Isabel) remains our main connection to Hatteras Island and beyond.

We even got a light dusting of snow today, but it’s gone already.

A Touch of Snow:
Snow in January

Residents of Hatteras village continue to struggle with the terrible destruction caused by Isabel.  To help cheer up our northern neighbors, a number of us (the performers at the summertime Ocracoke Opry, and others) put on a free performance for Hatteras village in November.  This was just days after the road was re-opened.  Everyone up there was delighted to settle back, relax, and enjoy some fine music and storytelling.  Many of the folks at Hatteras told us it was the first time they’d smiled since the hurricane.

The next evening we repeated the performance for our friends on mainland Hyde County who had also experienced extensive flood damage.

tornado art

Then one day in December a tornado struck Ocracoke just before midnight.  Luckily, no one was injured.  Damage was significant, though spotty.  A portion of the roof was blown off of the Post Office.  Wind pressure flexed walls and roof members as well.  Until the damage could be repaired the Post Office conducted it’s business out of the adjacent Sheriff’s Department and Jail for several days, .

The tornado damaged other businesses and property, as well, blowing out windows, uprooting trees, and breaking masts off of boats.

If that weren’t enough, a strong wind and rough seas forced one of the Swan Quarter ferries onto a shoal several days later.  Passengers, who should have been back to Ocracoke by 6 p.m., spent the night on the boat, and the ferry didn’t get pulled into deeper water until 2 p.m. the next afternoon.

Also the historic Assembly of God church has been moved this winter.  It now sits on a lot across from the Post Office.

Preparing to move the church from it’s original location:

The church traveling down Lighthouse Road:

Rear view of the church being moved:

The Assembly of God fellowship is planning to construct a larger, redesigned church on the original lot to accommodate their growing congregation.

There have also been some changes on Howard Street.  Hurricane Isabel took down a number of trees around Village Craftsmen and in the graveyards across the street.

A new, traditional style, wooden fence has also been erected around many of the graves on Howard Street.

New graveyard fence across from Village Craftsmen:
graveyard fence

My grandparents’ home, the Homer & Aliph Howard residence, just around the corner from Village Craftsmen, is one of the older homes on the island.  It is a traditional “story and a jump” house and was built around 1860.  A portion of the lumber used in the construction of the house was salvaged from schooners that wrecked on Ocracoke beach in the nineteenth century.

This winter I will be embarking on a rehabilitation of this historic structure.  We will begin by raising the house to better protect it from storm tides.  Then we will reinforce floors and walls to make it more structurally sound.

Of course, we plan to repair damage to the original windows & doors, replace the roof, and rehabilitate the original bead-board interior walls and ceilings.  In the process we will re-wire, re-plumb, and re-paint.  Lastly we hope to replace the fence and brick walkway in order to restore the house to its early 20th-century appearance.

It may take several years to complete the rehabilitation, but please take a look at the house on your next visit, and follow our progress.  We hope to include this house on a future Christmas-time tour of Ocracoke’s historic homes.

The Homer & Aliph Howard Home:

house falling apart

Click here or on the photo above to read more and to view vintage photos of this property as well as current photos (both inside and outside) documenting our progress.

Our best to all of our off-island friends.  Be sure to stop by and say hello on your next visit to the island.

Although we conduct internet business year ’round, Village Craftsmen on Howard Street is closed in January.  We will re-open for the season on Saturday, February 14, 2004.

Take care,

Philip & the entire staff of Village Craftsmen