I have lived among “the plain people,” as the Amish are sometimes called, for more than 30 years. Over the years, I have marveled at the groupings of their nondescript buildings, the simple beauty of the textured angles. Of course, I am likely romanticizing their architectural practicality.
This farmstead is a good example. The combination of a fresh snowfall in the foreground and a bright blue sky in the background nicely framed this cluster of farm buildings at this Old Order Amish homestead.
The middle-aged man sat in the van watching what he really wanted to do. His physically weak condition didn’t allow him to help rebuild the barn that had burned a month earlier.
I knew this man, and knew his heart was with these good people, people from across the community who came together to help resurrect the barn. My friend’s presence moved me as much as the corporate act of mutual aid that we witnessed.
Though he couldn’t help, my friend wanted to be there for support, for community, to keep the connection with his people. His presence was his help. Everyone knew about the fire that had destroyed the old bank barn. There was nothing firefighters could do that night other than to protect the adjacent buildings, which they did successfully.
Only three days before the barn raising, the clarion call went out, one phone message to another, for help. The result was a swarm of activity that began at sunrise and lasted until the job was nearly completed. This was not only how the community worked. It was the community.
My friend knew this. He viewed his vicarious participation as imperative.
He didn’t need to tell me this of course. In our decades of living here in this place, we knew the unwritten, modest code of conduct. When your neighbors need help, help them.
It is the way this community operates, has operated, will operate. It is who we are and how we survive. Without one another, we are nothing. No man is an island indeed.
Old Order and New Order Amish worked side-by-side, hammer by hammer, board by board, with one another. Conservative Mennonites, Mennonites, and probably a few Baptists and Presbyterians were in the mix, too. All hands were on deck, no membership cards needed.
One man served as the coordinator for constructing the structure back into a barn. One body, estimated at about 300 men, women and children, made it happen. The process was beautiful to behold, a community in action.
With the foundation and floor previously completed, the framing of the barn began before sunup. By 8 a.m., the trusses were already being set. No orders needed to be barked. Spontaneous crews simply flowed in precision without cue, and the building arose. It was mind-boggling, astounding and inspiring.
Completing the crown.
North side crew.
Lunch tent and barn.
On goes the siding.
On goes the roof.
Bearded men, clean-shaven men and teenage boys, proving themselves worthy, massed over the 50 by 60 foot frame. Seated on church benches, youngsters and women, their bonnets bleached whiter by the day’s brightness, watched and waited their turn.
By noon, the siding and roof were nearly completed. Hearty meals of homemade meatloaf, mashed potatoes and gravy, and plenty of side dishes and luscious desserts refueled the crews for the afternoon.
Even the weather cooperated for stepping casually across the peek of the roof. Clear blue sky, no wind to sway the balance, no humidity to dehydrate efficient work all made for perfect construction conditions.
In practicality, such a coordinated effort helped cut the cost of rebuilding for the owner. In a broader sense, such a coordinated effort reaffirmed that in a cooperative community no tragedy is too great to overcome.
Though he couldn’t help lift a board, my friend participated in this most sacred and iconic act. To the passersby who stopped to take photographs, it was a special treat to behold.
For those who knew what really transpired, like my friend, it was much more than a delight. It was communion.
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.