AMISH CHRISTMAS CUSTOMS
Christmas is probably the most important celebration in the Amish year. In fact, it’s so important that it is actually observed by some Amish three times: Christmas Day, Second Christmas, and Old Christmas.
Christmas Day falls on December the 25th for the Amish as it does for other Christians, a day when the miracle of Christ’s birth is recognized with joy and awe. For such an important event, one day isn’t enough, so while time spent with the immediate family is the norm for Christmas Day, the day after Christmas, also called Second Christmas, is a day to celebrate with the extended family. Visiting and sharing a meal can be an extraordinary event when your extended family is as large as that of most Amish. There might be over fifty people there!
In many Amish groups, Old Christmas is still observed. Falling twelve days after December 25th, January 6th is the celebration of Epiphany, the arrival of the wise men to visit Jesus, and in the Middle Ages this was the culmination of the Christmas feast. When the Gregorian calendar replaced the older Julian calendar, the Pope set December 25th as the official Christmas Day, but many Protestants kept to the old calendar, celebrating on January 6th. The tradition has hung on among some Amish who celebrate on both days, with Old Christmas usually being a more solemn and religious day.
Whether they recognize Old Christmas or not, an Amish holiday is one that most people in contemporary society would consider very plain. Amish children don’t make lists for Santa Claus or pore through catalogs searching for the latest in electronic gear. Old Order Amish homes don’t have Christmas trees or elaborate light displays. The Amish Christmas celebration, like all of Amish life, is focused on faith, home, and family.
Holiday customs vary from one Amish community to another. More conservative communities have low key observances of the holidays. In Pennsylvania, the Amish are affected by the strong Pennsylvania German tradition, and they are more likely to have the customary Pennsylvania Dutch decorations.
Christmas decorations in a typical Pennsylvania Amish home may include lighting candles and placing them in the windows to symbolize the birth of Jesus. Many homes now use battery-powered candles that pose less threat of fire. Candles are sometimes also used with greens on the mantelpiece and tables. If you visit a home with young children, you’ll probably find doorways and windows draped with strings of paper stars, angels, and sometimes popcorn. If the family receives Christmas cards, they’ll probably be displayed so that they can be enjoyed time and again throughout the season.
Christmas cards are sent in some church districts and not others. With so many Amish working in jobs which bring them into daily contact with the Englisch, it has become more common for Amish families to send cards to Englisch friends, and the cards are almost always handmade.
The Putz is an important part of the Christmas decoration throughout the Pennsylvania German communities. The Putz, or manger scene, developed very early in the church’s history as a way of teaching children the story of Christ’s birth. If you visit Bethlehem or Lititz in Pennsylvania during the holiday season, you can see some beautiful, elaborate depictions, sometimes including other Biblical scenes in addition to the familiar manger depiction. The typical Amish putz is much simpler, using clay or wooden figures and possibly a stable. Some families embellish the scene with natural materials like straw and greenery. Using the Putz, the Christmas story is told over and over throughout the days leading up to Christmas.
The Moravian Star is a 26-point star, first used in Germany in the 1800s. The Moravian community that settled in Lititz has preserved the tradition of hanging the multi-pointed star, and many Amish homes also include the Moravian Star in their decorations as representing the Star of Bethlehem.
School celebrations are an important part of the Christmas season in most Amish areas. The children begin preparing their parts a month ahead, but their teachers have probably been busy since last year’s program in collecting materials to use! The program, presented before as many family and friends as can cram into the one-room schoolhouse, is usually composed of readings, poetry, skits, and the singing of Christmas carols. Every child participates, and parents hold their breath until their little scholar gets through his or her piece. Teachers sometimes exchange the skits and poems with each other, building up a collection so that they can provide something new to the audience, which has probably seen countless Christmas programs over the years. The theme of every poem and skit is that of gratitude for the gift of Christ and of the proper response of humility and love. This may be the only time that an Amish child “performs” in any way, but the audience is always uncritical and enthusiastic.
Gift-giving is part of the Amish Christmas celebration, but it has little resemblance to the avalanche of gifts common to a typical American household. The presents are often handmade and generally something that is useful. Younger children typically receive one toy from their parents, while other gifts might be handmade clothing, cloth dolls, or wooden toys. An older girl might welcome something for her future home, while tools are popular gifts for older boys. The Amish school often has a gift exchange among the children, and usually the children take great pleasure in making a gift for the teacher.
The Amish home will probably be perfumed with the aroma of cookie-baking and candy-making for weeks before the holiday. While you can usually find home-baked cookies on any day, the holidays call for something special, and Amish cooks preserve family recipes for the cookies and treats, passing them on from mother to daughter. Most Pennsylvania Dutch are known for the quality and variety of their Christmas cookies, and you’ll find some traditional ones from my family in the recipe section. Enjoy!
In addition to celebrating with immediate and extended families, most Amish adults have various groups which plan Christmas lunches and suppers. In fact, there are so many of these that they might still be going on in February! Groups of cousins, people who work together, girls who went through rumspringa at the same time—all of these and more may share a special Christmas treat together.
But the focus of the Amish Christmas celebration, as of all Amish life, is the family. Gathered around a groaning table spread with roast chicken, all the trimmings, and an endless array of breads, cakes, cookies, and homemade candy, the family celebrates Christmas together with humility and gratitude to God for His amazing gift.