Hatteras Holiday Traditions by Danny Couch

In Christmas years past, the holiday season was all about home cooking and family around the hearth or wood stove, the advent themes of hope, peace, love, and joy on display, and glorious hymns of faith being sung at lamp-lit churches. Christmas at Hatteras saw reconciliation of stressed relationships, remembrances of blessed loved ones passed, and repentance of hurtful and harmful habits.

Hatteras homes hosted welcoming aromas of simmering stewed chicken and corn dumplings, stewed hard crabs and Kinnakeet pie bread, boiled drum old-Ocracoke style with onions, potatoes and fried fatback cracklins, slow-cooked collard greens with ham hocks, cornbread with home-canned fruits and garden vegetables, and apple pie, molasses cookies and butter cake cooling on the window sill. Women and the older girls worked together making magnificent meals, with a dash of one-upmanship flaunting time-tested cooking skills.  

Menfolk held court on the porch or at a nearby store, sipping hot coffee or yaupon tea sweetened with the toasty notes of condensed milk – and perhaps a snort or two of bootleg Trent Woods brandy. Conversation covered politics and current events, fishing, livestock, gardens, and gossip.

If Christmas is about kids, Hatteras was hardly the exception. Just the thought of receiving juicy Hyde County apples, exotic Caribbean citrus and hard candy on Christmas Eve was all the incentive younger kids needed to be on their best behavior. The older boys and girls took an extra minute or two at groom and dress to attract the attention of the opposite sex at the Sunday School Christmas candy pull.

It’s been said – with tongue in cheek – that the islanders are only happy when the weather’s miserable out, and Hatteras rarely fails to deliver a memorable holiday storm. One still on the books is the famous Christmas storm of 1884 and the wreck of the Ephraim Williams.

The Ephraim Williams was a veteran mid-Atlantic coasting schooner, lumber laden and outbound from Savannah to Providence as an intense, slow-moving low pressure system stalled off Cape Hatteras. Mid-morning December 21 the lifesavers at Durants Station in Hatteras village began tracking the vessel and alerted the neighboring stations of her pending approach to treacherous Diamond Shoals. She did not respond to flares, and some thoughts among the surfmen were that she may be derelict.

The crews of 4 lifesaving stations – Durants, Creeds Hill, Cape Hatteras and Big Kinnakeet – prepared for the worst as she neared the shoals at dusk in an unmanageable state. Somehow overnight, she successfully rode the fast-moving current through the Inner Slough, appearing in the mist just after dawn, roughly 4 miles offshore opposite the Haulover. Miraculously, she responded to a rocket flare from the lifesavers with a flare of her own – there was life on board.

A gallery of folks gathered on the sea beach stood by in prayer as Keeper Ben Dailey ordered his surfboat off carriage, instructed his 6-man crew to strip themselves for sea, and to don oilskins and cork belts. After a struggle the surfboat got beyond a pounding shorebreak, the crew strapped themselves to the thwarts, and Keeper Dailey began the count to negotiate the ominous open-ocean rollers crashing violently on the off bar. It was reported that the seas were of such height that those on the beach could see the bilge planking underneath the lifesaver’s feet as they climbed the faces of those towering waves.

In a script fit for a blockbuster movie, the Ephraim Williams rescue was effected over several hours – against all odds – without loss of a single life.

Read “Keeper James” Charlet’s thrilling account in the Island Free Press here:


A more recent weather event in Hatteras history is the Christmas Eve Blizzard of 1989. I was so struck with the severity of this storm, with deafening cracks of pink and green strobe lightning and rolling peels of thunder that shook entire structures, that I’ll forever remember it. My parents were in their ’70’s so after keeping an eye on the forecast, I decided it best to stay with them. It was a storm so astounding that our emotions swung from admiration of nature’s ferocity to paranoia that the ol’ cottage would collapse with us in it.

Read the late Irene Nolan’s account of this monumental event in the Island Free Press here.


No reminiscence of Christmas at Hatteras is complete without mention of Old Christmas at Chicamacomico (the tri-villages of Rodanthe, Waves and Salvo,) a tradition dating to the 1750’s. The short version of why this enduring event is still celebrated on the island goes back to the adoption of the modern Gregorian calendar in the 16th century by edict of the Pope, in lieu of the ancient Protestant-favored Julian calendar after the Pope’s refusal to acquiesce to the demands of King Henry the VIII of England to annul his marriage(s.) It didn’t help that England was perpetually at war with Spain over the New World, conflicts that ultimately lasted for more than 250 years. 

Great Britain finally followed suit in the 1750’s. Fiercely loyal to tradition – and hard-headed to a fault – the good folks at Chicamacomico willingly chose to continue celebrating Christmas on January 6th in protest to the loss of 12 days of Christmas by the switch.

Old Christmas will be celebrated in 2024 at the Rodanthe-Waves-Salvo Community Building on Saturday, January 6th.

Read 2023’s story on Old Christmas by Joy Crist in the Island Free Press here:


Interested in starting your own holiday traditions and family memories? If Hatteras holds a special place in your heart, take time to reach out to the experienced team at NC 12 Realty – we’re here for you. Property ownership is all about quality of life, and the crowning jewel on the cap of your investment portfolio.

Even better is the fact that – unlike stocks, bonds, and funds – you can come stay for the holidays (and any other day you wish) at your Hatteras home.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays from NC 12 Realty!

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