The Amish Christmas 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 embel;ish 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.
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.
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.
Marta Perry’s lifetime spent in rural Pennsylvania and her own Pennsylvania Dutch roots led her to write about the Plain People who add to the rich heritage of her home state. She is the author of more than fifty inspirational romance novels, including the Pleasant Valley, Three Sisters, and Watcher in the Dark series, among others. Her latest novel is The Forgiven, which releases Tuesday, October 7, 2014.She lives with her husband in a century-old farmhouse.
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