A simple Amish Christmas

SUN JOURNAL

Culture: Among the Pennsylvania Dutch, the holiday is a time for church and family - with no need of Santa, costly gifts or batteries.

December 24, 2003|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa. - Come Christmas Day, Daniel Esher, an Amish widower and woodworker, won't shower his 15 grandchildren with presents from the outlet mall. Instead, Esher and his family will attend a three-hour religious service, filled with German hymns, prayer and Bible readings.

For Lancaster County's 22,000 Amish, a Protestant sect with 16th-century European roots, Dec. 25 is not about tinsel-strewn evergreens, inflatable snowmen or overstuffed stockings. Santa Claus, as well as Rudolph and his reindeer friends are likewise banned from the Amish home.

"We like to keep it simple," says Esher, who spoke from a "telephone shanty" where the community, which ordinarily uses neither telephones nor electricity, keep phones for use in business or emergencies. "We go to church at 8 a.m. - that's how we always do it - and the service will go until about 11 a.m., maybe longer."

"It is not in any way what we would refer to as a commercialized Christmas," says Brad Igou, publisher of Amish Country News, a publication distributed by the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau. Igou lived with an Amish family in the 1970s and unlike most "English," the Amish word for outsiders, has intimate knowledge of Amish culture. "The effort in the Amish community is to keep the emphasis on the religious side, not gift-giving."

That's not to say that the Amish have no fun at Christmas. They celebrate the season with cards, gifts and tasty meals, and Amish children put on holiday programs that often include hilarious skits and elaborate blackboard drawings. But Amish families stop well short of having Christmas trees.

"The whole Christmas story starts with Christmas, and we don't doubt that it is the most important thing we have on Earth," says a 60-year-old Amish man from Gordonville, Pa., who regards use of his name in a newspaper as a form of self-glorification out of step with a church that stresses humility.

"The Amish would see it as disrespectful of the true religious meaning of the day to decorate their houses," says Donald B. Kraybill, a senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. "For them, Christmas is a quiet and reflective day. There would be no references to Santa Claus."

The Amish - a spur of the Protestant Reformation that got its start in Europe in the 1500s - adhere to biblical teachings that emphasize a life of simple pleasures. They believe in living separate from the world, a philosophy under which members go without cars, televisions, computers and microwaves.

"The New Testament teaches not to love the world or things of the world," says Kraybill, who has written widely about the Amish, including The Riddle of Amish Culture, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. "Christmas is a sacred day. It is celebrated in a much more utilitarian and practical way in the Amish world."

At church on Christmas Day, the Amish might sing from a hymnal called the Ausbund, some editions of which include stories of early religious persecution, including burning at the stake, a form of execution reserved for heretics, says Kraybill. The hymnals include much-loved songs, many of which are sung in German. Most Amish here speak a German dialect called Pennsylvania Dutch or Pennsylvania German, a dialect they call Deitsch. English is spoken only at school or to outsiders.

Church services are held in the home, and many Amish homes have movable walls so that rooms can be expanded to handle up to 200 people.

"The home is not only where they raise their families, but a sacred center of the Amish society," Kraybill says.

On Christmas Day, the Amish exchange gifts that in most cases are simple toys or useful objects such as a tool or clothing. The Amish give gifts in recognition of the three wise men who, according to the Bible, traveled from afar to honor the infant Jesus with offerings of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Christmas is also a time to celebrate friendships, and the Amish enjoy sending holiday cards, some of them hand made with rubber stamps and inkpads. And though no Amish family would have a Christmas tree, a poinsettia, which the Amish view as a symbol of natural beauty, is an acceptable holiday decoration, says Morton Fry, 72, who owns Frysville Farms of Lancaster County, a greenhouse that employs Amish and Mennonite women to help sell 80,000 poinsettias during the holiday season.

Christmas merriment is reserved for Dec. 26, referred to as "Second Christmas," when the Amish gather for family feasts and parties. On Second Christmas, everyone can relax, at least for part of the day.

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