by Bruce Stambaugh
Celebrating the Christmas Amish-style
The Amish enjoy celebrating the holidays just as much as anyone else. They simply go about it a bit differently.
Defining how the Amish celebrate America’s most time-honored holidays deserves an introductory explanation. The Amish are divided into church groups, usually about 100 persons per church. And by church, they mean fellowship, since they hold church in their homes, shops or barns.
There are actually many different types or orders of Amish. The Swartzentruber Amish are considered to be the lowest order, with the New Order Amish the highest, since they hold Sunday school on the alternate worship Sundays.
Using the terms “lowest” and “highest” is not intended to be derogatory or even hierarchical. It simply is the way it is with the Amish. Those in-between are the Old Order, by far the most numerous among the Amish population. The orders are simply determined by rules of the church leaders.
Clearly, defining the Amish is a lot harder than their simple lifestyles might let on. Nevertheless, they all celebrate the holidays one way or another.
You can’t generalize about the Amish. Their holiday traditions and rituals vary from family to family, church to church and sect to sect, not much different that any other culture or ethnic group.
Modesty is a major principle in the values of the Amish. That fact can be seen in exactly how the Amish keep the holidays. In living out their faith beliefs, they do so joyously surrounded by food, family and friends.
Here then is an overview of how any given Amish family, save those in the Swartzentruber order, might celebrate the holidays.
From the Amish perspective, anyone not Amish is considered “English.” The Amishrecognize and respect the “English” demarcation of Christmas on Dec. 25. For them, Christmas is a sacred day in honor of the birth of God’s only son, Jesus Christ. And here again, many, though not all, will fast prior to their family gathering.
Amish actually celebrate Christmas twice, once on the standard date of Dec. 25, and again on Jan. 6, commonly referred to as Old Christmas. In higher religions, that day is known as Epiphany.
Unlike the rest of society that celebrates Christmas, the Amish do not have Christmas trees or decorations. They will, however, burn Christmas candles in honor of the day.
After the usual Christmas meal of turkey or ham and all the trimmings, the Amish will spend the afternoon and evening playing table games, board games and cards. None of the card games would involve using face cards.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Christmas without gifts and the Amish carry out this tradition of gift giving as well. The gifts will be wrapped, but usually nothing elaborate. Children will receive toys.
Since not all of Amish Country is Amish, the usual holiday decorations and activities occur like in the rest of Christendom. Millersburg, the Holmes County seat, holds a Christmas parade, Santa included, and on Dec. 10 will initiate its first candlelight church walk from 6-8 p.m.
Berlin, the hub of Amish Country, has a luminary ceremony. Even little Mt. Hope, where mostly Amish live, has a Christmas parade and a live nativity scene. Santa, however, is nowhere to be found.
Old Christmas harkens back to the change from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar during the latter stages of the Reformation when Pope Gregory XIII switched Christmas to Dec. 25. Out of tradition and reverence for their forefathers, the Amish have continued to honor Christ’s birth on Jan. 6.
Unlike the more jovial Dec. 25 celebrations, Old Christmas is more solemn. It begins with fasting, followed by another typical Christmas meal and some more gift giving. However, the emphasis is on reflecting and visiting as opposed to reveling.
No matter which holiday is being celebrated, family is always an important element in any get-together for the Amish. And that is true for any Amish order.