In an effort to keep a local old-time music tradition alive, the Surry Arts Council is undertaking a new initiative this year, the traditional “Breaking Up Christmas” celebration.
The event will feature free music and dancing at the historic Earle Theatre today and Saturday, according to Arts Council Director Tanya Jones.
Today’s event will get under way at 7 p.m., with a jamming and dancing session. Saturday’s event is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
Jones said the impetus for the idea came from the desire to keep history alive in the area.
“The Surry Arts Council will be celebrating Christmas the old-time way, with the Blue Ridge Mountain holiday musical tradition ‘Breaking Up Christmas,’” she said. “Back-Step, led by local old-time masters Chester McMillian and Nick McMillian, will play for both celebrations, and there will be free music and dancing.”
The tradition takes its name from music and dance celebrations in this area, where residents used to “break up Christmas,” Jones said.
“The celebration included two weeks of nightly house parties that were filled with music,” she added. “Each night, musicians would announce the location of the following night’s celebration and hosts would move all the furniture to make room for dancing.”
Paul Brown, a newscaster and reporter for National Public Radio, received a National Federation of Community Broadcasters Silver Reel Award for his NPR documentary, “Breaking up Christmas: A Blue Ridge Mountain Holiday.”
In the documentary, Johnny Vipperman, Jim Vipperman’s father, claims that “Breakin’ Up Christmas” existed in local slave communities, when slaves were given a lighter workload during the holiday period. Other stories tie the celebration to Old Christmas, which is celebrated on Jan. 6.
Tommy Jarrell and numerous other local musicians have recorded the tune “Breaking Up Christmas,” with popular lyrics including:
“Hoo-ray Jake and Hoo-ray John
Breakin’ up Christmas all night long.
Way back yonder a long time ago
The old folks danced the do-si-do,
Way down yonder alongside the creek
I seen Santy Claus washin’ his feet.
Santa Claus come, done and gone,
Breaking up Christmas right along…”
Jones said the Surry Arts Council is hoping to revive the tradition in Mount Airy, and is kicking off the effort with the two free celebrations at the Earle Theatre.
“We’re hoping to receive grants next year where we can do this longer,” she said Wednesday.
“In December-January 2013-2014, there will be nightly celebrations around Surry County,” Jones said. “Help us spread the word and join us as we kick off this old-time tradition.”
Reach Keith Strange at email@example.com or 719-1929.