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Your Guide to Pennsylvania's Amish Country

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An Amish Christmas

As might be expected, Amish Christmas customs are simple, oriented to the family and the religious meaning of the holiday. So, Amish children donít visit Santa Claus in the store. There is no lavishly decorated Christmas tree in the home. And strings of colorful electric lights do not grace the front of the Amish house. But the making of special cookies and candies is certainly a part of the holiday activities. Greens and candles may decorate some home interiors. School children often pick names and exchange small gifts, such as writing paper or a needlepoint kit. Families usually exchange some small gifts as well. Some Amish also send Christmas cards, often to their "English" friends.

The Christmas church service may or may not be held on December 25th, but both Christmas and the following day, sometimes called "second Christmas," are holidays for the Amish. This second day is usually one of relaxation or visiting others. Christmas dinners are a special part of the celebration, These are usually large meals, not unlike those served at weddings, and various groups beside the family will hold get-togethers, such as single women, teachers, and others of like interest. These gatherings may continue into January and February of the New Year.

One of the highlights of the Christmas season, for children and their parents, is the Christmas program held in many of the one-room schools. Beforehand there is much rehearsal and perhaps some simple decorations made by the children for the school. At one Amish school, children worked on making a quilt showing the school and eight apple trees, for the eight grades. Each tree had an apple for each student in that grade, along with his or her name.

On the day of the presentation, carriages arrive and parents file anxiously into the room. Some, of course, may have more than one child attending in grades one through eight. Stories, plays, and songs are filled with humor and messages of the meaning of the season. And this is one of the few times you will ever see Amish children on a "stage" or "performing for an audience."

For non-Amish visitors who may be invited to enjoy one of these presentations, it is a memorable experience indeed, since most of the program is in English rather than the Pennsylvania German dialect.

A few years ago, I discovered an interesting book in an Amish bookstore titled "Getting Ready for Christmas." This book was filled with "Christmas plays, poems, and songs suited for Amish schools." An Amish lady, Emma Lapp, collected the materials included, and the typing was done by a wheelchair patient, who "will get a percent of all the books sold."

The Christmas programs usually begin with a welcome, sometimes by one of the younger "scholars." Here is a sample from the book....

Iím glad it isnít size and weight

And age that counts today,

ĎCause then I might not have the chance

To stand up here and say...

"MERRY CHRISTMAS!"

While stories are often about their non-Amish neighbors, and may even mention Santa Claus and Christmas trees, clearly this is not what the season represents. Some of the dialog from the plays suggests the morals behind the stories...

"Sometimes the gifts you make bring more happiness than anything you can buy."

"Giving and making others happy is the best part of Christmas."

"The best gift you can give is simply called love."

Here are some sample selections from the book, beginning with one of the many poems that might be heard:

This Christmas season let us try

To do some golden deeds,

To carry someoneís burden,

To help someone in need.

There are always those who need us

As we journey on lifeís way,

And the friends we win by helping

Make us richer every day.

So when you see a saddened face

As Christmas time draws near,

Do your best to lift the load

And spread a word of cheer.

In this selection, "Christmas Bees," imagine the seven children walking to the front of the classroom, each holding a bee-shaped "shield" with a word on it. They begin by reciting in unison:

Bees can sting, oh, this is true,

But bees can make good honey, too,

And that's the kind we have for you.

Now each child holds up a word and recites a verse about his or her "bee..."

Be REVERENT in spirit low, at the manger lowly;

And catch anew the vision fair of the Christ Child holy.

Be GENEROUS, give all you can, then give a little more;

Be sure to give more largely now than you ever gave before.

Be THOUGHTFUL of the people who are lonely, old, or sad;

Be thoughtful of the children, too, and help to make them glad.

Be READY quickly to respond to Christmastime appeals;

Be quick to give to friends afar or for the needy's meals.

Be UNSELFISH --- all self-seeking with abandon cast aside;

Be unselfish --- that's the keynote of the happy Christmastide.

Be HOPEFUL for the best in life, for hope has wondrous worth;

It was to bring hope unto men that Christ came down to earth.

Be APPRECIATIVE for great riches of Christ and of His love,

And of all the blessings from our Father up above.

Oh, may these "bees" with you abide,

All sweeten well your Christmastide.

This poem, "Ten Little Candles," is to be presented by ten children, each with a lighted candle. Each recites a verse, blowing out his or her candle at the appropriate time...

Ten little candles, Jesus bade them shine,

But selfishness just snuffed one out, and there were nine.

Nine little candles, one without a mate,

Bad companions came along, and then there were eight.

Eight little candles, doing work for heaven,

"I forgot" sat down on one, and then there were seven.

Seven little candles, all with blazing wicks,

Someone cried out, "Goody Boy," and there were six.

Six little candles, all of them alive,

But one was tired of playing, and then there were five.

Five little candles, once there were more,

Sunday baseball fanned one out, and then there were four.

Four little candles, bright as bright could be,

But one of them just didnít have time, so then there were three.

Three little candles, could one of them be you?

That one gave up going to church, and then there were two.

Two little candles, our storyís almost done;

"Iím too small, no use," one cried, and then there was one.

One little candle, left all alone,

It kept on burning by itself, and oh how bright it shown.

Brave and steady burned the flame, until the other nine,

Fired by its example, once again began to shine.

(Now the child with the remaining candle lights the other nine, and the children exit singing, "This Little Light of Mine.")

Following is part of a poem entitled "Christmas Recipe..."

Take a bit of cheerfulness,

A pinch of laughter, too.

Next take a cup of thoughtfulness,

And stir them through and through.

Now to this add tranquility,

A verse of "Silent Night,"

That ever quiet we may be

When God sends his holy light.

Set aside a moment while you go

For spices, herbs, and pine,

For music, fun, and candle glow,

A star that was the sign.

Then mix and stir and fold again,

And add some mistletoe,

A bit of faith and love and then

Into an oven your cake must go,

Where warmth and affection will combine

To make this cake come true.

Garnish with happiness so fine

Enough for me and you.

Cut a piece, but save some, too,

For each day of the year.

Serve with a prayer of peace on earth,

A heavenly Kingdom near.

In keeping with the focus of the holiday, some Christmas songs and carols are sung. Sometimes new words with a religious meaning are given to secular songs (such as "Jingle Bells" or "Up on the Housetop"), and even traditional carols may be given new verses, especially for the children. Here is a re-working of "O Little Town of Bethlehem..."

O little Inn of Bethlehem

How like we are to you;

Out lives are crowded to the brim

With this and that to do.

Weíre not unfriendly to the King,

We mean well without doubt;

We have no hostile feelings,

We merely crowd Him out.

The parents, of course, respond enthusiastically to the children. Finally, after all the songs and short skits, the program concludes...

Now that our programís over,

I came to say good-bye,

And what I feel like doing,

Is heave a great big sigh.

Take our mistakes as kisses;

No harm was meant by them.

I hope you did enjoy the day

So you will come again.

Amish Country News Article by Brad Igou

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