Less “Partridge in a pear tree” and more “Breakin’ up Christmas all night long, Santa Claus come, done and gone,” the 12 days of Christmas have historically been a little different in Surry County and northwest North Carolina from what they were in other places.
From Christmas Day on Dec. 25 to Epiphany on Jan. 6, or Old Christmas, as it was known locally, the hills and hollers were alive with the sound of music back in the day.
“No one knows for sure when it started,” said Kelly Epperson, owner and manager of WPAQ in Mount Airy, speaking of the custom known as Breaking Up Christmas. “Some people say it started in the 1920s, and some people say it goes back to the century before that.”
“During those 12 days from Christmas Day to Jan. 6, folks would gather in homes and literally move the furniture outside so they could dance and play. The house would fill up with folks making old-time music,” said Epperson. Sometimes the parties, with music and dancing, food and drink, would go from one house to another. “They’d cook big meals, eat and play and dance, and sometimes the party would go all night.”
The custom of Breaking Up Christmas faded out around the time of World War II, said Epperson, but seemed to gain a resurgence in the 1970s. Epperson remembered his father, the late Ralph Epperson, talking about a birthday party for Tommy Jarrell in the ’70s that was connected to the resurgence. He said Jarrell was playing “Breaking Up Christmas” all over Surry County and Southwest Virginia, and it’s still going strong.
The song “Breaking Up Christmas,” strongly associated with Jarrell, “has been played, picked up by ear, and passed down through the generations,” said Epperson.
This year, the Surry Arts Council will host two events at the Historic Earle Theatre for folks who are not lucky enough to have a house full of musicians and a lawn full of furniture. The two concert/dances are on the two Saturdays that fall within the parameters of the Breaking Up Christmas season, Dec. 30 and Jan. 6, both at 7:30 p.m.
The Buckstankle Boys, a group born and raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina, will be playing on Dec. 30. Band members are Wes Clifton, Andy Edmonds, Seth Boyd, Todd Hiatt and Tim Eaves. They were all brought up and schooled in the ways of traditional mountain music and formed their group to promote the older sounds of bluegrass and old-time music.
Jan. 6 brings Slate Mountain Ramblers to The Earle. A family old-time band from Mount Airy, they have been a mainstay of the dance and festival culture in central and western North Carolina and southwest Virginia for over 25 years, and are still going strong. Richard Bowman (fiddle) is joined by his wife, Barbara (bass), and daughter, Marsha Todd (claw-hammer banjo). Randy Hiatt (guitar) rounds out the group.
Admission to the Breaking Up Christmas concerts is $6 or current annual pass. Tickets are general admission (no assigned seats) and are available online (www.surryarts.org), by phone (336-786-7998), or at the door. For additional information, contact Antonia Cawley at (336) 786-7998 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.