REACHING RODANTHE To get to Rodanthe from Washington, drive to Richmond, take 64 into Norfolk and follow 168 to Sligo. From Sligo, take 34 to Barco and 158 into Manteo. Rodanthe is a 45-minute drive down from Manteo and Nags Head.

Available winter accomodations include the Ramada Inn and Holiday Inn at Nags Head, Sea Ranch at Kill Devil Hills, the Elizabethan Motel and the Duke of Dare at Manteo. All have restaurants.

Every year, the hearty souls of tiny Rodanthe, N.C., a hamlet on the rugged Outer Banks, celebrate Christmas almost two weeks late.

The celebration usually takes place inside an old frame school house, just across the road from a mean, crashing surf. The town huddles -- coats on, drinks in hand -- inside a spare, lighted room with nary a sign of Yuletide ornament to wish each other a Merry Old Christmas and wait for a mythical creature called Old Buck.

This year, Rodanthe's second Christmas comes on January 6.

Outside, near the ragged beachhead, smoke from roasting oysters curls into the cold winter sky as locals, fortified with strong drink, settle into a rough and tumble evening on their remote stretch of Atlantic coast.

The Outer Banks has other winter charms, of course, bird-hunting and bird-watching chief among them. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, the midpoint in the Atlantic Flyway, is a feeding and resting place for many species of wintering waterfowl. More than 25 kinds of ducks, as well as Canada geese and whistling swans winter here.

Influenced by the Gulf Stream, the weather is often milder than one might expect, and winter strollers usually find the long beaches deserted, save for the occassional bare bones of a shipwreck.

But a winter visit to the Outer Banks would be barren indeed without a Merry Old Christmas in Rodanthe.

It's held on the Saturday closest to the actual date of Old Christmas, January 5, also known as the Twelth Night celebration.

This celebration of Christmas by an earlier calendar all began when stubborn Outer Bankers refused to do as King George ordered. In 1752, the British crown imposed the Gregorian calendar on all its possessions, including the American colonies. The King, in effect, lopped 10 days off the calendar to make up for accumulated error. The decree played havoc with celebrations.

Ever since, say locals, they have held firm to their party dates, more out of tradition than defiance.

The annual festivities hereabauts are about as fancy as an oyster shell. Nor do the 100-150 Outer Bankers and assorted strangers who still hold the Old Christmas party each year seem to have mellowed much since their ancestors kicked off the custom.

As the night wears on, young bucks sometimes square off. Occassional fisticuffs ensue, but it's usually more bluff than blood.

The ceremonial part of Old Christmas is the appearance of Old Buck, a creature who is said to live in the Outer Banks woods, emerging only on this night.

There was once a ship loaded to the gunwhales with cattle, one story goes. But it got caught in rough water and went down. All the living drowned, save the original Old Buck who made it to shore, found the woods to his liking and begat other Old Bucks.

"That'a the story somebody told," says 81 year-old John Herbert, a 28-year Coast Guard veteran and Keeper of Old Buck for "better than 35 years. I took it from my wife's grandfather. Don't know why I did, but I did."

An Old Christmas regular whose longjohns peek from his cuffs, Herbert "was born and raised right on the beach," he says.

As Fannie Payne, a grim-faced woman in a dark raincoat thunks an antique drum, Herbert leads the mythic animal through the crowd.

The beast's horns come from New York, Herbert confides, having imported them about 25 years ago. The beast's four legs belong to a couple of local boys. Old Buck cavorts briefly on the low stage of the meeting room and vanishes for another year.

At about this time last year, a band called The Lone Star Cowboys began picking and fiddling "Orange Blossom Special." Teenage couples held tight as small children and old timers took to the crowded dance floor. Young bucks shoved each other about.

There used to be more fightin' than funnin', says an old man who identifies himself as the father of Old Buck's hind legs. "They'd fight until the last man would fall." But on this night, midnight comes and goes without serious blows.

The cost of this evening was $3, oysters, music, and Old Buck included. It's a good idea to bring your own oyster knife and dress for duck hunting. Reserved admission is not necessary.

If you're lucky, a local preacher, in minstrel fashion, might even hold forth with a free-wheeling version of the Christmas story. "And they found out that all the Holiday Inns were full," he preached last year, "sort of like the Fourth of July around here."

But, in Rodanthe, it doesn't really matter whether Christmas comes in January or June because, says the minister, what really counts is "that we love one another."

"Amen," come the shouts. And outside at the oyster table, a man announces drunkenly again and again: "I love everybody." And the pile of oyster shells grows higher.