How Amish Celebrate the Holidays

An Amish farm on Christmas Day in Holmes County, Ohio.

The Amish enjoy celebrating the holidays just as much as anyone else. However, they 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 many different orders of Amish. The Swartzentruber Amish are considered the lowest order, with the New Order Amish the highest, since they hold Sunday school on alternate worship Sundays.

The terms “lowest” and “highest” are not intended to be derogatory or hierarchical. It simply is the way it is with the Amish. Those in between are the Old Order, the most numerous among the Amish population. The rules of the church leaders determine the orders.

Defining the Amish is a lot harder than their simple lifestyles might let on. Nevertheless, they all celebrate the holidays in 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 from any other culture or ethnic group.

Modesty is an essential 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. Christmas decorations are insignificant.

Here is an overview of how any given Amish family might celebrate the holidays, save those in the Swartzentruber order.

Christmas

From the Amish perspective, anyone not Amish is considered “English.” The Amish recognize and respect Christmas’s universal demarcation on December 25. For them, Christmas is a sacred day in honor of the birth of God’s only son, Jesus Christ. Many, though not all, will fast before their family gathering.

Amish celebrate Christmas twice, once on the expected date of December 25 and again on January 6, commonly referred to as Old Christmas. In higher religions, that day is known as Epiphany.

The Amish appreciate natural holiday “decorations,” like this sundog, while a red-tailed hawk roosts on a distant tree.

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, however.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Christmas without gifts, and the Amish also carry out this gift-giving tradition. The gifts will be wrapped, but usually nothing elaborate. Children will receive toys. There is, however, no mention of Santa.

Perhaps the closest to celebrating Christmas in contemporary fashion is done at the private or parochial Amish schools for grades 1 – 8. There are nearly 200 such schools in the Holmes County area. All are either one or two-room schools, where students walk to school. Before taking a couple of days off for Christmas, a program is held for parents, grandparents, and friends on the evening of the last day of school. The program usually consists of Christmas songs, poetic recitations, short plays, and possibly group singing.

Family and friends gather for a Christmas program at an Amish school near Mt. Hope, Ohio.

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 more gift-giving. However, the emphasis is on reflecting and visiting as opposed to reveling.

No matter which holiday is celebrated, family is always essential in any get-together for the Amish. And that is true for any Amish order.

An Amish school sits empty on a snow hillside during a brief Christmas break.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

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