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.
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.
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 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.