Christmas isn’t about hustle and bustle

Snowy decorations by Bruce Stambaugh
Snowy decorations always add to the Christmas celebrations.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I don’t watch much television. But what little I do, I can’t help but notice how the torrent of holiday-oriented commercials focuses on the urgency of buying something really nice for that special someone in your life.

Celebrating Christmas in our advanced society seems distorted. A brand new car wrapped with a huge red ribbon and bow sitting in the driveway, a sparkling diamond ring and a gold necklace cannot supersede the original gifts of the Magi.

Eager for customers, the ads have managed to push their way to the forefront of the holiday season much too early. Growing up, the countdown to Christmas started the day after Thanksgiving, now known as Black Friday. Today, it seems to start the day after Labor Day.

Watching for buggies on Christmas Day by Bruce Stambaugh
Watching for buggies on Christmas Day.

Even here in the heart of Ohio’s Amish country, we feel the hustle and bustle of the season. Without admitting it, we might even add to it. It’s always easier to see the fault of others than your own.

Wreath on frosty window by Bruce Stambaugh
A frosty holiday decoration.

I don’t want to be negative about Christmas. It’s my favorite holiday of the year.

I just think that given all the commercialization of Christmas, we need a different approach. As I reflect on the historical account of the Advent season that I learned early in life, it seems more and more obvious to me that Christmas really is more about patience than it is presents.

I have many fond childhood memories of readying for Christmas, and the excited anticipation of Christmas morning. My brothers and sisters and I couldn’t wait to raid the pretty packages strewn beneath the tree on Christmas morning. That scene was not the model of patience.

Mom and Dad had stayed up late assembling and wrapping the gifts for us kids. We always pushed our luck at getting up before the crack of dawn to undo what it had taken Santa and our folks hours to prepare.

But what a happy morning it was, with the excitement of surprise with every unwrapping. Those days were simple compared to what passes as season’s greetings today. I find the entire holiday hubbub of shopping, buying and spending exhausting.

Opening gifts by Bruce Stambaugh
Exchanging gifts at Christmas is part of the family tradition.

I long for the true peace and quiet of Christmas, with the family gathered, the fireplace blazing, the tree’s lights sparkling. Of course, we maintain the gift-giving tradition. We have just toned it down so that reason rules. We want the gifts to represent personal quality instead of absurd quantity.

The stockings hang by the chimney with care. They are filled on Christmas Eve, and emptied on Christmas morn. Just like when I was a child, an orange will be the last to tumble out of each.

The grandkids will watch The Polar Express over and over until the DVR wears out. We’ll play games, eat, and bask in the glow of the moment and the season.

Decorating the tree by Bruce Stambaugh
The grandchildren enjoy helping to decorate the Christmas tree.

Our modern society may rush the Advent season and judge it by its economic success. But as for me and my family, we will enjoy each others company, joyously share our humble appreciation and rejoice that it is Christmas once again.

Those are Christmas gifts worth waiting for.

Getting ready for winter

Martins Creek by Bruce Stambaugh
A series of heavy snowfalls hit Ohio's Amish country last winter.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Like it or not, winter is right around the corner. We have already tasted some of winter’s appetizers, snow, temperatures in the teens, and, of course, shortened daylight.

Fortunately here in Ohio’s Amish Country, the snow didn’t amount to much, and the skinny temperatures quickly moderated. Once winter arrives officially next week, that could change. We could have a snow-filled winter like last year, or worse yet, one like 1977 and 1978 when snowdrifts reached 20 feet or more.

Living in Ohio all my life, I have found it helpful to mentally and physically prepare myself for the inevitable. Whether it is prolonged or only stays awhile, the weather will get cold, and it will snow from time to time.

Snowbirds arrive in Pinecraft, FL by Bruce Stambaugh
Snowbirds arrive via bus in Pinecraft, FL.

Those who dislike that harsh reality and who are in a position to do so flee south or southwest to warmer climes. At least the snowbirds hope they will be warmer. Last year proved otherwise. It frosted in Florida and snowed deep in the heart of Texas.

Snow deep in the heart of Texas by Bruce Stambaugh
It even snowed in Austin, TX last winter.

All of us can’t escape the onslaught of winter’s harshness. Some of us don’t want to. Others are involuntarily stuck here to fend for themselves.

I have fond childhood memories of the benefits of winter, like ice skating, sledding, flinging snowballs and digging snow tunnels. Most of them likely were indeed in the throes of winter. But I do remember delivering newspapers in a glorious Christmas Eve snow.

I also recall hustling our young son and daughter into my in-laws’ farmhouse amid stinging, sideways snow, howling winds, and frigid wind chills. There are times when Ohio winters are at their absolute worst in December.

We then anticipate January and February to be utterly horrible. And low and behold they might turn out to be meek and mild, not to mention mucky.

Whether we stay or whether we go, winter, regardless of the weather, will arrive. We might as well get ready for it.

Snow covered cornshalks by Bruce Stambaugh
A typical snowy scene in Ohio's Amish country.

In many ways, we already have. The tomato trellises we erected last spring have long been coaxed out of the ground and stored in the garden shed, thanks mostly to one of our kind, strong young neighbors.

The birdfeeders have been cleaned, filled and hung, and the backyard birds, and a couple of mooching fox squirrels, have already been taking advantage of the freebies. Actually, I am the one that is grateful. Watching the birds, and squirrels, rabbits and occasional deer, enjoy the cracked corn, oil sunflower seeds and suet mixes is my winter’s entertainment.

White breasted nuthatch by Bruce Stambaugh
A white-breasted nuthatch at my kitchen window feeder.

In truth, I feed the birds year-round. With winter’s approach, I merely increase the number and style of feeders to accommodate the various feeding habits of my feathered friends.

Of course, I can’t neglect the vehicles that transport us from place to place during the winter weather. I make sure each is winterized and ready to endure whatever winter has to throw at us.

The woodpile is stacked high and wide, ready to feed the hungry fireplace. I’d rather be shunning the cold elements in front of a warm fire than on the outside shoveling them. Who wouldn’t?

Winter is nigh. Are you ready?

Amish sledding haiku

Amish farm in snow by Bruce Stambaugh
The fresh blanket of snow made perfect sledding conditions for children on this Amish farm.

The boy and the girl
took turns sliding down the hill
in a coal shovel.

Bruce Stambaugh
December 13, 2010

How Amish celebrate the holidays

Amish church by Bruce Stambaugh
Amish on their way to church near Mt. Hope, Ohio. Church was held in a member's home.

By Bruce Stambaugh

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 in 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.

The key to understanding how the Amish do so lies in this understanding. 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.

Thanksgiving

Most Amish take advantage of this national holiday just the way the rest of the country would. They gather with family, extended family and friends and enjoy turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, a vegetable and of course dessert, usually homemade pie.

However, instead of breakfast, many of the Amish fast prior to the large noon meal. Fasting is a physical sign of purification in preparation for the celebration.

The lower order Amish, however, have a different take on Thanksgiving. They see it as an opportunity to prepare for the winter months ahead. For them, Thanksgiving is the big hog-butchering day. They’ll save their substantial meal for another later.

Christmas

From the Amish perspective, anyone not Amish is considered “English.” The Amish recognize and respect the “English” demarcation of Christmas on December 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 December 25, and again on January 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 away 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, Ohio seat,  holds a Christmas parade, Santa included, and on December 10 will initiate its first candlelight church walk from 6 to 8 p.m.

Berlin, Ohio, 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

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 December 25. Out of tradition and reverence for their forefathers, the Amish have continued to honor Christ’s birth on January 6.

Unlike the more jovial December 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 apposed 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.