When I (Shannon) was a child, it seemed like the Christmas season was as long as our summer break. My mom began decorating the weekend before Thanksgiving, and we left our decorations up until at least the first week of January. That all seemed normal to me, as most of my family operated the same way. It wasn’t until one late January, when our neighbor began giving us the side-eye, that I realized leaving our decorations up, long past Christmas, was perhaps a bit abnormal. When I asked my mom about the decorations being on display past Christmas Day, she told me about Old Christmas, January 6th. January 6th is also the Feast of the Epiphany, the celebration after the 12 days of Christmas. In the Irish and Amish tradition, January 6th is believed to have been the original Christmas Day.
My mom still loves Christmas and has been known to leave one of her trees (yes, I said one of her trees) up year-round, changing the ornaments out to fit the season. In our home, of course with our minimal décor, we still celebrate the Christmas season until Old Christmas Day, therefore, we cringe when all things Christmas (songs, movies, décor) stop abruptly on December 26th. We like to extend Christmas for as long as we possibly can.
Extending Christmas includes a drive down to Harkers Island, to view their Christmas lights. A couple of years ago, the locals told us about how Harkers Island really “does it up” with their holiday décor. Almost every residence has an “Island Anchor” lit, and hanging from a pole, tree, dock, or anything else standing. Alongside the anchors are many crab pot Christmas trees, boats decorated, and lights strung on anything that sits still.
Harkers Island is just a short drive from our home in Beaufort, and if you take the drive just before sunset, as we did, the experience can be magical. As you head down east, the land is flat, and the view over the sea marsh to the ocean is immediately calming. Once you cross the old bridge into Harkers Island, there is a sign that greets you, of course, lit up for Christmas, that welcomes you to the “Gateway to Cape Lookout.” If you drive to the end of the island, you can see the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, which is also just a 15-minute ferry ride away from this point. We have often driven to Harkers Island, to this area to walk Betty White, and take in the view, and the ocean air from a different vantage point than we have in Beaufort.
The island is also a hidden gem of a watch area for a sunset. A sunset on the Crystal Coast is unsurpassed, except maybe in Key West, but one from Harkers Island is breathtaking. It is worth a road trip, just to witness the sunset if you are near eastern North Carolina.
The history of Harkers Island is interesting and not all positive. Ebenezer Harker, who owned the island beginning in 1730, was a slaveowner, and the island had many slaves until their emancipation in 1863. Harkers Island saw an influx of new residents after hurricanes in 1896 and 1899 devastated Core Banks and Shackleford Banks. The storm of 1899 ravaged the Banks’ protective sand dunes and washed away nearly all of the soil. Harkers Island became a refuge for those people.
Nowadays, if you meander into places on the island, or meet folks who are from Harkers Island, you will often notice a dialect you may not have heard anywhere else. I recall hearing it for the first time, thinking that the person I was talking to was probably from a remote area of Ireland. The dialect is known as “high tider” or “hoi toider.” The dialect of Harkers Island can be traced back to the Elizabethan period and developed as the island was in almost complete isolation for over 250 years.
Also, interesting, even though the island is only approximately 4 miles by 2 miles in size, and has a population of about 1200, there are 8 churches on the island, all different denominations.
The history is so rich on Harkers Island, and makes a drive to it, even more fascinating, at Christmas, or any other time. The island, though just a few miles from Beaufort, also seems like a world away once you cross that bridge onto it. Opulent history, breathtaking sunsets, and a dedication to Christmas decorations make this experience one that we are grateful for, as we extend our Christmas into the New Year, through January 6th.