Thursday, 27 December 2012

The Amish at Christmas

There is an age old debate that occurs for some Christians at this time of year – whether or not Christians should celebrate Christmas and if they do, how? The date of Christ’s birth is not known; the Bible does not tell us. Some have made educated guesses and come up with possible dates in either spring or autumn. It is unlikely however that it happened ‘in the deep midwinter’ or that there was any snow on the ground!
The date 25th December was chosen because it was ‘convenient’. There was already a pagan festival on that day, in honour of the sun god; when the population converted to Christianity, the church leaders simply ‘re-assigned’ the feast to the Christian calendar, making the celebration ‘new’ in the same way that conversion to Christianity made the person ‘new’.
Those who oppose Christians celebrating Christmas include:
  1. For some, the fact that the date itself was associated with paganism is enough to warrant not celebrating the birth of Christ on the same day;
  2. For others, they see many over-extending themselves, getting into debt buying presents they cannot afford, drinking and eating to excess and it makes little sense to them to contribute to that kind of celebration in commemoration of the One who left the splendour of heaven to come to earth and live in poverty and simplicity on our behalf;
  3. Then there are those who follow what is known as the Regulative Principle, which simply means, when it comes to worship, if it isn’t in the Bible, then we don’t do it: “The regulative principle of worship is a teaching shared by some Caslvinists and Anabaptists on how the Bible orders public worship. The substance of the doctrine regarding worship is that only those elements that are instituted or appointed by command or example or which can be deduced by good and necessary consequence from Scripture are permissible in worship, and that whatever is not commanded or cannot be deduced by  good and necessary consequence from Scripture is prohibited,” [Wikipedia]. The only celebration of Christ’s birth that we read of anywhere in the New Testament is where the angels appeared to the shepherds on the hillside to announce that the King had been born. Nowhere do we read that Jesus celebrated His own birthday, or that the disciples celebrated it, or that the early church celebrated it, therefore, those who adhere to the Regulative Principle would say Christmas is a celebration that should be avoided by Christians.
In spite of all those objections, there are those Christians who do celebrate Christmas. Some like to follow all the traditions, such as decorating a tree, lighting candles, having a special celebratory meal and carol singing. Most churches have special services at Christmas, particularly involving the children in a nativity tableau or play, and singing carols. Some churches will even have a decorated tree inside the church, while others will accept people having one at home, but will not have one in the church. There is nearly as much variety as there are Christians.
For those who do celebrate Christmas, why do they do it? And why on 25th December?
Many people, who would not attend church ordinarily, will often want to attend at Christmas. The day is mostly associated still with the birth of Christ (though that is fast becoming a thing of the past here in England). Many enjoy the singing of carols, the reading of the lessons and celebrating with others who may or may not be family. The more evangelical churches have used the opportunity to preach the message of the gospel of the Kingdom of God – after all, without the birth of Christ, there could have been no death and resurrection. While the death and resurrection are seen as the most important aspects of the Christian calendar (the time when Christ died for our sins), His birth was a necessary pre-requisite.
With all those differences of opinion, do the Amish celebrate Christmas?
One might be forgiven for thinking that, with all the commercialism associated with Christmas, the simple, plain-living people that the Amish are would keep as far away from the season as possible. But you would be wrong. Not only do they celebrate Christmas (on 25th December like everyone else), but they also have ‘second Christmas’ and some have ‘old Christmas’ (January 6th, in line with the Gregorian calendar, whereas we now use the Julian calendar). But true to their image and traditions, they do not celebrate it like the rest of America or the United Kingdom. Their celebrations are quiet and simple.
For many, Christmas revolves around Santa, reindeer and expensive presents. By contrast, the Amish do not have Santa, flying reindeer, decorated trees, decorated homes, twinkling lights adorning the outside of their homes (they don’t have electricity either, so lights might prove a bit of a challenge); they also don’t have excessive buying/spending, expensive presents by the armload, or gluttony, evident in so many homes at this time of year. They do have a nativity play, fasting, Bible readings, visiting family and friends, simple gift giving, a special meal (on ‘second Christmas’) and the exchange of cards (in some communities). They will not only exchange cards with each other, but also with their ‘English’ (non-Amish) neighbours and friends.
A few days before Christmas, the parents will be invited to their children’s school for the Christmas Programme. This is the one time in the year when the children are allowed to dress up and ‘perform’ to an audience. There will be recitations of prose, Scripture and poetry and the children will take positions at the front of the school as the shepherds, Mary, Joseph, and other characters in the Biblical narrative. For an example of a Christmas programme in an Amish school, see here
‘First Christmas’ occurs on December 25th. The day is given over to quiet Scripture reading, telling the story of the birth of Christ, fasting and prayer. If the day falls on a church Sunday, then it is church as usual – and that happens in the home of one of the members of the congregation. The focus is on the written record of the birth of Christ, with parents explaining to their children that Christ came, in what manner, and why.
‘Second Christmas’ falls on December 26th and that day is given over to exchanging simple gifts (frequently homemade) visiting with friends and family, playing games, eating a celebration meal (they have turkey with plenty of vegetables, much like any other Christmas meal), and singing Christmas carols.

Gifts are often homemade and are certainly not the expensive, lavish presents expected amongst so many, particularly children. The children do not write lists of what they want and expect to get almost everything on the list. Instead, they might get one or two small gifts, often things that they need or something to help with a hobby, such as a rubber stamp and inkpad for scrapbooking. In the schools  they will do a version of ‘secret Santa’ but without Santa. All the names of the children are put into a hat and each child draws a name out. They must keep the name to themselves and prepare a gift appropriate to the person whose name they have drawn. That way, everyone gets one gift and no favouritism is shown. Sometimes families will do this too – everyone gets a name of another family member to make or buy a gift for.
The two days are holiday. There is no school and businesses are closed. The children spend their time playing games in the snow (if there is any), sledging, skating and snowballing. If there is no snow, often the young people will get together to play volleyball or to sing together. Once the two days are over, schools resume and the adults and older children return to work.
Is our family Amish in its Christmas celebration?

Here at home our church does not have a Christmas morning celebration or service. We hold a carol service on the Sunday before Christmas and invite our friends and neighbours, including those who are neighbours to the church building. We have carols, lessons (about Christmas) and a short presentation of the Gospel, followed by a light supper, when we can get to know those we haven’t met before and chat with those we already know.

On Christmas day, in our family we exchange gifts, usually things people need or something necessary for a hobby – for instance, our daughter makes her own jewellery and so we might buy her something appropriate for that. We have a celebration dinner of turkey and all the trimmings, but we don’t overeat. In the afternoon, we might sit and talk with each other (the ‘children’ are adults and do not live at home any more, but they always come home for Christmas) or, if the weather is favourable, we might go for a walk. This year, the walk was on Boxing day, due to it raining all day Christmas day. We try to keep it simple and focus on the ‘reason for the season’. When our children were small, we told them that it is usual on a birthday to give gifts to the birthday boy or girl. Because we cannot give gifts directly to Jesus on His ‘birthday’, we give them to each other instead and remind ourselves with gratitude that at Christmas God gave mankind the greatest gift of all – His Son, to be our Saviour.

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