Beach and Sand Fence. Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Photo by John Buie.

Share This

In Search of Old Buck: Old Christmas on the Outer Banks

Our assignment was to uncover the cultural traditions of the sand-swept Outer Banks, a once isolated string of barrier islands that arc more than thirty miles into the ocean from the North Carolina mainland. I was working on a project funded by the National Park Service, the agency that manages the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, designated in 1954 to protect the Outer Banks from rampant development. Tucked here and there along Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, which make up the bulk of the national seashore, are eight villages that predate the establishment of the park by more than 200 years.

The northernmost village is Rodanthe, once called Chicamacomico, an Algonquian term meaning “sinking down sand.” The old name is appropriate, as frequent nor’easter storms and hurricanes occasionally punch inlets through the thin barrier islands, including a “hotspot” just north of Rodanthe. The paved road, built in the late 1950s in preparation of the 1964 bridge project that connected the banks with the mainland, has been repaired again and again, an ongoing response to Mother Nature’s running joke on our futile efforts to tame her.

Our team was tasked with finding native inhabitants who could remember banks life before the establishment of the park, and before the developers, investors, and vacationers caused village beachfronts to be crammed with “McMansion” rental machines that fetch several thousand dollars per week during high season. A few of these oceanside homes tumble into the surf every time a hurricane happens by, but presumably good insurance policies pad the fall. Native residents live in modest bungalows nestled in wooded areas on the sound side; old timers knew better than to build on the edge of the moody Atlantic.

We were also tasked with combing through oral histories of Outer Bankers recorded in the 1970s and 80s, archived at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Headquarters in Manteo. I copied all of the transcripts and spent many ferry rides from the mainland to Ocracoke Island and Ocracoke to Hatteras Island immersed in these old salty stories of shipwrecks, storms, and . . . livestock? The latter surprised me. I knew wild horses and feral hogs, pigs, goats, and cattle roamed some of the smaller islands in the southern banks region, and that horse roundups and brandings, known as “pony pennings” was a now defunct Independence Day ritual on the banks. But I had no idea just how central livestock herding was in the everyday lives of pre–World War II banks dwellers.

The beach, as it turns out, was once the domain of livestock. The barrier islands were ideal for raising horses, cattle, and sheep because fencing was cost-prohibitive to early settlers, and the ocean served as a natural barrier. So the beach, now peopled with surf fishermen, families with children in tow, and sunbathers, was once scattered with herds of rangy cattle standing udder-deep in the surf for relief from the heat and flies. Young men astride banks ponies once drove sheep up and down the beach for their annual shearing. Range riders with rifles took aim at any animal not marked with a green splash of paint, signifying they’d been dipped in anti-tick solution as required by the federal government.

The “wild west” underpinnings of Outer Banks life helped make sense of a couple of mysteries. First, why did banks landowners in the 1940s and early ’50s sell their property relatively cheaply to the federal government? The easy answer is that they didn’t know any better. Who could predict the goldmine that beachfront property would become? Descendants of old banks families continue to shake their heads at the thought of the government land deals. Some express the suspicion that their ancestors were duped or robbed.

Yet there is more to the story. The North Carolina General Assembly passed a law in 1935, two years before Congress authorized the establishment of Cape Hatteras National Seashore Park, that banned free-range livestock on Hatteras Island. Legislation grew out of the concern that overgrazing led to a lack of vegetation, which led to increased erosion. Once livestock owners were forced to keep their animals penned (many opted to sell or butcher their herds), the wide open beaches that served as the “back pasture” became useless. Is it any wonder that these self-sufficient, frugal villagers sold former range property at a cut rate?

Another mystery pertains to the subject of this article: Old Christmas in Rodanthe. For years I had heard rumors about Old Christmas in the northernmost village of the Outer Banks. Brawling. Drinking. Contests in rifle marksmanship. And a mythological bull named Old Buck. Say, what? I could understand the drinking, dancing, shooting, and brawling. But why would a storm-tossed community hemmed in by the mighty Atlantic to the east and the vast Pamlico Sound to the west have a mysterious bovine as a centerpiece for their annual celebration? Wouldn’t a creature of the deep—a sea turtle, whale, grouper—make more sense?

As I read oral history accounts of children catching horses for moonlight beach gallops, grabbing cows’ tails to get slung back and forth on the beach, and getting recruited by their menfolk for a multiday, rite-of-passage sheep branding or cattle drive, a mythological bull no longer seemed so far-fetched. I wanted to find out more, suspecting that Old Christmas would serve as a window into the cultural values of Rodanthe. This was important, because the people of Rodanthe, by and large members of the Midgett clan, proved to be the most elusive when it came to securing interviews. And the village itself, once a stand-alone community two miles or so away from Waves, which in turn was a couple of miles away from Salvo, was now part of one big tri-village strip of restaurants, motels, gift shops, surf shops, and of course, rental houses.

Amid the throng of summertime visitors, I wanted to call, “Anybody home?” Locals during the height of the tourist season are either too busy working or laying low, waiting for cooler, quieter days ahead. I had a list of people to call, but my attempts went unanswered or were declined. At last an elderly woman agreed to let me in her house and record an interview. Victory! I later received a handwritten letter from her requesting that I not use her interview; she had read the transcript and felt that she sounded “ignorant.”

Rodanthe was a hard nut to crack.

“I know someone in Rodanthe,” a Hatteras fisherman confided, “who has Old Buck’s head in a box in a closet.” I had heard that the mythological bull made his Old Christmas appearance late in the evening, rope-led by a handler. His long horns were shiny and formidable, his hide speckled and tough, and his four legs? They were pants-clad and wearing shoes! Tales of shrieking children, encouraged by their parents to touch Old Buck for good luck, indicated that they were none the wiser about the two men crouched under the cow hide.

I called the “keeper of the head,” probably sounding a little too eager to chat. She hung up on me after exclaiming, “Outsiders make fun of us.”

Fortunately, other banks residents were more than willing to talk about Rodanthe’s unusual ritual, and many had fond memories of participating in the annual event. So just what is Old Christmas?

Rodanthe is one of the few places left that celebrates Old Christmas, also known as Twelfth Night, in the United States. This long-held tradition can be traced to England’s adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752, which shortened the year by eleven days. The change was resisted by isolated groups of Protestants, including the people of Rodanthe, who marked Jesus’s birthday as January 6 (Twelfth Night). To this day, people who participate in Old Christmas in Rodanthe talk about celebrating “two Christmases.” (Blake and Amspacher, Living at the Water’s Edge, 128)

“When I was growing up you would dress up in old clothes and hats and maybe black your face or put a stocking over it,” recalled a man from Salvo. Others recalled men dressing as women and vice versa, not unlike traditional Mardi Gras or Mummers traditions. “We’d go around to everybody’s house and they would give you pie and cake and all kinds of things,” the Salvo resident added with a smile. His wife added that some good-natured chicken stealing would also ensue, and the day would end in feast.

“People settle scores at Old Christmas,” a fishmonger told me. “You might have a gripe with someone, fight it out at Old Christmas, then start the new year with a black eye and a clean slate.” As summer gave way to fall, and fall to winter, I looked forward to attending my first Old Christmas with a little trepidation, images of a bucking bull and brawling fishermen dancing in my head.

I had discovered the nexus of Rodanthe locals: Island Convenience Store, owned by Mac Midgett and family. Mac Midgett, now deceased, was a scary looking character. Big, burly, and bearded, he was the archetypical Outer Banker, descended from shipwrecked islanders, shipwreck scavengers, legendary Lifesaving Station surfmen, stockmen, and fishermen. By the looks of him perhaps a pirate or two lay in his genealogical past. He was the informal mayor, a key figure in all things Rodanthe, and his family’s store was the information hub for Old Christmas. One cold January day I gathered my courage and walked behind the convenience store to his garage, where the men of the village sat in torn-up chairs near a woodstove eating nabs. Mac stared me down without a word.

“I understand from the good ladies in the convenience store that Old Christmas is coming up?” I ventured. Nothing. “It’s open to the public?” Silence. “Well, nice talking to you!”

“You should come,” Mac said as I was headed out the door. “This Saturday.”

Indeed, the public is welcome to attend Old Christmas, but the festival is not advertised nor is it aimed at visitors.

In the old days, Old Christmas began with a pre-dawn racket, as a rowdy band of villagers marched along playing fifes, drums, and assorted noisemakers. People in costume joined the procession through the villages of Chicamacomico. They’d eventually end up at a table loaded with chicken, oysters, pies and other Christmas fixings. At the life-saving station, a test of marksmanship would commence, including a surfman with a .22 rifle shooting an apple off the head of a man. (Blake and Amspacher, Living at the Water’s Edge, 128)

These days Rodanthe’s Old Christmas is held on the Saturday closest to January 6, to accommodate work schedules and off-island family members. I arrived on Friday and was hard-pressed to find a motel open in the off-season, let alone a restaurant. Once settled, I drove by the Old Christmas site: the Rodanthe-Waves-Salvo Community Center, which was once the old school by the harbor. A sign read, “Old Christmas Jan 10, 4pm, Oyster Shoot 2pm,” which was all the advertising I saw. I noticed it was beginning to snow.

Old Christmas day was bitterly cold. I arrived at the community center in time for the oyster shoot, which took place on the basketball court. Six rifles lay across a picnic table. Contestants chose their weapon and tried their best to hit the target to win a bucket of oysters. Too cold to care who won, I stepped inside the building to find a warm and cheery scene of six women in the kitchen making chicken and pastry. “Hope you’re here to help!” someone called, and I was put to work rolling dough.

Photo by Barbara J. Garrity-Blake

Photo by Barbara J. Garrity-Blake

“This is only our second year cooking,” a woman explained, draping freshly rolled pastry over the side of a bowl. “Our mothers did it forever, but they announced last year they were retiring!” So these sisters and cousins were the Daughters of Rodanthe, taking up the mantel of tradition even though, as it turned out, all but one lived off-island in Norfolk and beyond.

“That’s the beauty of having two Christmases,” a dark-haired woman from Virginia Beach remarked, retaining a hint of the distinctive coastal brogue. “We spend the first with our families, and the second in our true home, right here.” She continued, “We always knew there was no place on earth like Rodanthe at Old Christmas—it’s the only place to be on this date.”

“We all know each other’s flaws,” added a daughter of a Coast Guardsman. “But you come home, and none of that matters—you are loved for who you are.”

The afternoon faded into evening, and people lined up at the door to pay the six-dollar admission for a chicken pastry dinner, roasted oysters, and a dance. Children raced around the dancefloor as a rock band from Norfolk set up. A woman played the piano as tables filled with diners.

“I thought I was the last Midgett alive!” exclaimed a wiry man in his thirties to a group of relatives, a comical remark as the event felt very much like a family reunion. By the time the band began to play, the place was packed. Although no liquor was served, some had “brown bagged” their beverage, and the dancing got looser. The event, however, was a tamer affair than I had feared—no brawling! As parents sat on the edge of the dancefloor with children in their laps, the anticipation of the evening’s highlight grew. I noticed the bear-like Mac Midgett in a chair with a tiny brown-eyed granddaughter peering out, held tenderly in his paws. Then, it happened!

A white-haired man emerged through a side door with a rope and a stick, leading the famous bull. The handler’s name was John Herbert, a Rodanthe native who drove up from St. Petersburg, Florida, each year to assume this responsibility. Old Buck looked glorious with a speckled face and beautiful set of horns, but his cow-skin hide had been replaced with a crate-packing blanket. His front legs were khaki and his back legs were black denim. He was less frisky than the legendary Old Buck that would kick and stomp and buck off anyone who dared leap on his back. This one shuffled slowly around the dance floor. Nonetheless the people of Rodanthe were thrilled, snapping photos, urging their children to dare a poke. One lap around the room and Old Buck was gone.

Photo by Barbara J. Garrity-Blake

An old-timer told a student writing for Cape Hatteras High School’s Sea Chest journal that the villagers used to gather at the beach at midnight on Old Christmas to observe the “weird action of the cattle.” The cattle would “fall on their knees” as if praying, making a low, murmuring sound.

The elder also told the student the legend of Old Buck. Long ago, a great black and white bull was the only survivor of a shipwreck. The bull “soon became acquainted with the cows and had a field day, siring many calves.” The villagers loved him and would ride on his back each Old Christmas. One day, Old Buck rambled south down the banks into thick woods, where he was shot and killed by a hunter. From then on the mythological Old Buck would emerge from the woods to show up at Old Christmas, “scaring the children into being good.”

A slightly different version of the Old Buck legend was recorded by author Charles Whedbee in his Outer Banks Mysteries and Seaside Stories. He describes Old Buck as originally “Bucca,” a great fighting bull on a Spanish ship. En route, Bucca became possessed by a dragon. When the ship wrecked, the beast swam to Hatteras Island with two sailors hanging onto his horns. The sailors married into the Hatteras Indian tribe, while Bucca disappeared into the woods, emerging each Old Christmas.

The morning after Old Christmas, as I rode the ferry across the gray, wintery sound to the mainland, I reflected on my encounter with Old Buck. What did it mean? Other festivals, such as the African American Jonkonnu festival and Ireland’s Bealtaine rites, feature horned creatures. Symbols mean different things to different people, and it seemed to me that Old Buck meant Old Christmas, which in turn meant coming home from the wilderness to reconnect with one’s people. The folks of Rodanthe, elusive to me and my recorder and awash in tourism for most of the year, were nearly invisible. Yet for one day, in the dead of winter, they manage to gather from near and far to celebrate their cultural heritage, resisting for just a moment the ravages of development that transform and homogenize coastal communities.



Garrity-Blake, Barbara, and Karen Willis Amspacher. Living at the Water’s Edge: A Heritage Guide to the Outer Banks Byway. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.