Some say the Blue Ridge holiday tradition of Breakin’ Up Christmas originated in the North Carolina mountains in the 1920s. Others say it dates back to at least the mid-19th century.
On National Public Radio newscaster/reporter Paul Brown’s 1996 award-winning NPR music special, “Breaking Up Christmas: A Blue Ridge Mountain Holiday,” the mother of North Carolina mountain musician Johnny Vipperman claimed that Breakin’ Up Christmas existed in local slave communities, when slaves were given a lighter workload during the holiday period. The interruption of their routine continued as long as the backlog (a large log at the back of a fireplace) burned; to keep the backlog burning as long as possible, slaves would first soak it in water and mud.
Other stories tie the duration of the celebration to the 10-day period between Christmas Day and Epiphany, or Old Christmas, on Jan. 6.
Whenever and however Breakin’ Up Christmas got its start, the tradition will be alive and well tonight at the historic Rex Theater in Galax, Va., where local musicians will stage their annual Breakin’ Up Christmas Party. The musical celebration will also be broadcast — for the first time — on the WBRF-FM 98.1 radio station and streamed live over the Internet.
Hosting the show will be Jonathan Lohman, director of the Virginia Folklife Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Virginia’s state folklorist.
Lohman has presented and facilitated cultural programs at numerous festivals and symposia throughout the Commonwealth and the nation, including the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the American Folklore Association, the National Folklife Festival and many others.
“We recently extended the invitation to Jon to host the program, and we’re delighted that he accepted,” said Debbie Robinson, coordinator of the Breakin’ Up Christmas Party. “Jon has represented not only our region, but our state for a number of years and has a wealth of in-depth knowledge of historic American traditions that developed right here in Southwest Virginia.
“Jon has indeed been a good friend to the music and musicians of Galax and surrounding areas, and we are pleased to have him participate in an event that took place for many years in the past and has once again become an annual tradition here.”
Breakin’ Up Christmas gatherings were for many years typified by house parties filled with music, dance, food and drink. Furniture was moved out of the houses to make way for players and dancers, and the party sometimes moved from house to house for a week or two after Christmas.
While the Breakin’ Up Christmas tradition waned during and after the days of World War II, it enjoyed a resurgence of popularity during the 1970s and continues today in dance halls, civic buildings and homes throughout Southwest Virginia and Northwest North Carolina.
Several years ago, the Rex’s Blue Ridge Backroads Show volunteers and organizers decided to revive the tradition by offering an informal gathering of musicians, dancers and fans of the music as a way of saying thanks to all those who support the Blue Ridge Backroads Live Music Show throughout the year.
Doors to tonight’s Breakin’ Up Christmas Party will open at 6 p.m. The show starts at 8 p.m.
Admission is free, although those who attend are asked to bring a snack to share.
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