The Amish observe Christmas but do not share many mainstream, American Christmas customs. For example, they don’t set up CHRISTMAS TREES in their homes, tell their children about SANTA CLAUS, and buy lots of expensive presents (see also COMMERCIALISM). Few decorate their homes in any way for the holiday and those that send CHRISTMAS CARDS generally send them to their non-Amish friends. Instead, the Amish Christmas revolves around a few simple, homespun pleasures.
The Amish are Protestant Christians who maintain a lifestyle many Americans associate with centuries past. They reject most modern industrial and technological developments. Amish families continue to work their own farms without the aid of tractors or other motorized farm equipment, ride in horse-drawn buggies, and wear clothes popular two hundred or more years ago. The Amish came to this country in the eighteenth century to escape religious persecution in Europe. Here they found the freedom to worship as they wished and live in the manner they chose. Today’s Amish speak English but also preserve the German dialect of their ancestors. Many Amish live in the state of Pennsylvania, but they can also be found in Ohio and other Midwestern states, as well as Canada.
The Amish faith emerged from the Protestant Reformation, a six-teenth-century religious reform movement that gave birth to Prot-estant Christianity. Like the English and American PURITANS, the Amish initially rejected the celebration of Christmas as a non-biblical, frivolous, and sometimes even decadent holiday. A touch of this attitude remains today in their restrained observance of Christmas.
Amish Christmas Customs
Most Amish schools prepare Christmas pageants. Since Amish children attend school right up till Christmas Day, the pageant is generally set for the afternoon of December 24. Parents and other relatives attend and watch with pride as their young people recite poems and take part in skits — many of which contain moral teachings about Christmas charity, faith, and love — and sing Christmas Carols. Earlier that day the children may have taken part in a GIFT exchange in which each child, having drawn a slip of paper with another child’s name on it, brings a present for that boy or girl.
For most Amish, Christmas morning begins with farm chores. Afterwards the family gathers for breakfast and Christmas gifts in the kitchen. In nineteenth-century Amish families, parents set out plates on the kitchen table and piled their children’s presents on top. They usually gave their children things like nuts, raisins, cookies, candy, and rag dolls and other homemade toys. Other Pennsylvania Dutch families also set out Christmas plates in past times. The custom of setting out Christmas presents on the kitchen table seems to have died out among other groups, however. Today Amish families exchange a few useful gifts on Christmas morning. Typical gifts include simple toys such as skates and sleds, books, homemade candies and cookies, kitchenware, and household items. A large Christmas dinner completes the day’s activities.
On December 26 the Amish celebrate “second Christmas.” This custom, once common in Pennsylvania Dutch country, came into being so that those who devoted much of DECEMBER 25 to religious observance did not miss out on all the Christmas fun. It’s a popular day for family outings, visits, GAMES, and other leisure activities. (For more on Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas customs, see CHRISTMAS IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICA; BARRING OUT THE SCHOOLMASTER; CHRISTMAS IN BETHLEHEM, PENNSYLVANIA.)