Category Archives: oysters

Days of Old Christmas Past

When I first moved to Rodanthe, I heard about Old Christmas. It took me a while to understand the roots of this tradition and it’s anachronism to modern times. Dating back perhaps 200 years, it has much to do with the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar and the isolation of the Outer Banks.

I’ve enjoyed Old Christmas over the years and have never seen anything quite like it. These days it consists of an oyster roast, dinner, music, dancing and anything that might come with it.

Decades old photographs that I shot at the event have become windows into a vintage past. Most of the pictures shown here were taken in 1985.

j-henryLocals gathered at the Community Building parking lot to begin celebrating. Anderson Midgett is on the far right checking out a shotgun. Jim Henry, the grey-haired man in the middle who did much at Chicamacomico Station, loved mingling with the crowd.

timIt almost took a village to start a fire for roasting salty oysters. Tim Merritt looks on as Larry Midgett and Rudy Gray get cooking.

dbBill Midgett, DB Midgett and John Edgar Herbert tailgated at the oyster shoot.

larryLarry Midgett took aim to win a bushel of oysters.

jobob“Jobob” Fegundes and Bruce Midgett shared responsibilities over the fire.

macEveryone enjoyed the oyster roast, including Mac and Steve Midgett.

old-buckAnd of course the culmination was the appearance of Old Buck, here being led by John Edgar. There are 2 well-known photographers in this shot too. Drew Wilson, a staff photographer for the Virginian Pilot is on the right wearing a brown hat. David Alan Harvey, a staffer for National Geographic, is behind the man in the tan sweater sitting on the stage. David was loading more film. So I was shooting in good company that night.

This year Old Christmas will be on January 7th, beginning with an afternoon oyster shoot, and continuing into the night.

In Rodanthe, Christmas is celebrated twice a year.

New Spat in Town

A friend of mine once made the observation that tourists, hot weather and mosquitoes get here at about the same time each year. That acquaintance was John Gillikin of Buxton. He’s no longer with us, but you have to admit his tongue in cheek statement is pretty true. When I have more time, I’ll have to tell you a little bit about Gillikin. He was one of the more colorful characters of Hatteras Island and deserving of remembrance.

Getting back to this time of year when all those things happen, I need to throw in another item… new oysters. They’re called spat, and as the rising water temperatures of the sound hit around 70, oysters here begin to spawn. Male and female oysters emit sperm and egg into the water and wherever they meet, an eyed larvae is the result. It swims in search of substrate to attach and grow. Mortalities are high and those that find attachment, develop a shell and begin their life cycle as a true oyster.

Last week I found 8 new ones on my research tiles out in Pamlico Sound. About a half inch in size, they were just weeks old, perhaps 4 or 5. That was about the time the water temperature was spiking from the low 50’s in mid April to upper 70’s by the end of May.

spat                                                                                                                                   Oyster spat is set on substrate along with calcareous worm tubes.

tubes Similar spat information is collected by dozens of volunteers up and down the North Carolina coast, and goes into a research program with the Benthic Lab at UNCW.

There’s no doubt that we’re hitting our peak season. With plenty of vacationers, the heat and a few mosquitos, the oysters should be spawning for the while.


About ten years ago, I began nurturing an oyster garden. It has not been without some pitfalls like high wave action, sedimentation and algae blooms. But despite that, the oysters have thrived and grown into a series of small reefs. The reefs attract a myriad of other organisms, not just oysters. As the oysters spawn and grow, so does the size and complexity of the reef.

I take water quality data around the reefs twice a week and submit the information to researchers at UNCW and ECU. I see shrimp and fish interacting with the reefs. One day measuring salinity, I stood in waist deep water with a school of taylor blues swimming circles around me. I’ve also seen green sea turtles feeding there.

barnacles                                      Barnacles grow abundantly on the reef.

anemone Sea anemones wave arms in the moving current.

eggs A blenny laid it’s eggs in an empty oyster shell.

oyster toad Reef inhabitants include young oyster toads.

mud crab Mud crabs find a bountiful food supply in and around the reef.

spider Spider crabs are common residents.

stone crab I’m also finding some stone crabs in the system.

snappers One of the most interesting critters in the mix are the snapping shrimp. About 2 inches long, they look like a small lobster.

butterfly One late Summer day, I caught and released this butterfly fish.

shucked Some critters live inside the oyster itself, like the pea crab in the oyster on the right. In it’s protected environment, the crab feeds on plankton brought in by the oyster and it’s relationship is  parasitic. Locally, the pea crab in an oyster is deemed a culinary delicacy.



Skipjack and Cold Front

I’m often asked what my favorite picture is. The answer is that I can’t single out any one, from many preferred images.

One of my most endearing shots was taken the day before Thanksgiving, 31 years ago. I was into my second season of oyster dredging on the Chesapeake Bay, aboard the sailing skipjack, Virginia W.

There were reports that the day before another workboat, Hilda Willing, had dredged its limit of 150 bushels near the mouth of the Choptank River. With oyster populations in steady decline, that was a rare occurrence.

So early that Wednesday morning, all the Tilghman Island skipjacks set out for the same spot. There was no wind, however an approaching cold front was forecast to sweep in. We had our sails up ready to work. A light breeze began to fill in, though we were still underpowered and moving at a slow pace, barely able to pull a single dredge.

skipjack frontSkipjack and Cold Front-1982- prints available on request

As was typical of my working the middle deck, throwing the starboard dredge, I had my Nikonos rangefinder camera by my side. The massive clouds of the cold front began rolling in, getting closer. I looked over to see the Sigsbee, full sails up, waiting for wind. I took 6 shots, then put my camera away.

The front was an ominous sight as we prepared for more breeze. We tied 4 reefs in the main, deployed a second dredge and began catching a few oysters. Our speed increased, a gust of wind hit, and the boat heeled over, filling my right boot with sea water. There were some tongers  working nearby, and maneuvering was tight. Coming about for another lick, we had a near collision with one of them, our massive bow sprit crossing over his cabin top.

By that time it was blowing a gale, and impossible to control the boat safely. We dropped our sails, deciding to call it quits after bringing in 4 bushels and headed home for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Another Old Christmas

Our holiday season officially ends with the traditional celebration of Old Christmas. It takes place at our Community Building the first Saturday after the new year begins. This year I had a good time and downed plenty of roasted oysters.

Dave Harvey is shooting a couple of stories for National Geographic, and one of them is about the Outer Banks. I first met him when he was shooting another Outer Banks assignment back in 1986. We attended Old Christmas together back then, so this year was a sort of reunion. Here he works at the oyster shoot. Look for his story in an upcoming issue.

Joey O’Neal demonstrates the fine art of roasting oysters to his son Joey Jr. No doubt, Joey’s dad taught him the same thing. Back on the left, Willy Smith shucks a raw one.

Here comes John Edgar leading Old Buck.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anyone mount Old Buck.

Old Buck is led away only to return next year.

When Old Christmas is over, we get one more look at our tree, then take it down.

For more, see my blog entry from the January 2009 Old Christmas.